I am not the best at writing full-fledged race reports immediately after events- rather, I prefer to let things marinate for several weeks or months to heighten reflection and perspective. Perhaps some elaboration as to the difference between race logging and race reporting is in order. To me, there are two distinct objectives at play in post-race documentation: recording data for one’s own use and future reference versus summarizing the experience of training for/racing in an event and the results, intended to be shared for the possible benefit of others. Some are able and choose to fulfill both of these objectives simultaneously and there is nothing wrong with that. I can certainly see the value in putting thoughts down while still fresh in the mind, especially from a logging perspective. However, the value of time passing to increase the quality of the race report should not be minimized for anyone with a bit slower of a thought process (me).
Therefore it is with some trepidation that I begin to manifest these thoughts as I sit only four days removed from the subject event- but what else is one to do when left with 10 plus hours of flight time?
The lead up to Kona 2015 began, as so many do, with a qualification. I managed to put together a slot-worthy performance at IM Chattanooga in September 2014 and the decision to seize the opportunity was one of the easiest $900 purchases of my life. As a first time qualifier, I was beside myself at the prospect of going to the big show. What’s more, I had over a year to train up and polish my game. For better or worse, Kona was to become my focus (obsession) for the next 12 months of my life. As such, I took a much different approach to event scheduling for 2015 than I had in years past. There was to be only one goal race. The absence of a taper and peak period in the spring made for a slow and steady build over 11-12 months- by far the longest stretch of training I have done while staring at a single race.
This is not to say that there was any dearth of racing on the calendar to keep the mind and body occupied. In fact, my race mileage doubled and travel mileage went through the roof in comparison to 2014. Efforts at Syracuse 70.3, IM Lake Placid, and the 70.3 WCs in Austria yielded mixed results but brought me some great experience and increased confidence overall. My emerging identity as a long distance triathlete was further cemented, confirming what was hinted at after IMCHOO. The longer, the better.
At long last (mercifully) the taper for Kona was upon us and then, the trip itself. If the use of the collective pronoun raised an eyebrow, allow me to expand. I had the magnificent privilege of traveling with and racing alongside some of my best friends and our families. I am confident it is the exception, not the rule, to come to the most prestigious event in triathlon with such a large group of supporters- and for those of us racing to have each other out on the course as well.
Although my teammates and families arrived at various times, Team Wright flew in on the Wednesday night before the race. This seemed early enough in the week… but more on that later. There was not much left to do but get some sleep, so we tried. However the one thing that hit me right away as a Hawaii newcomer was the heat and humidity. Without AC in our rental home, we had a tough time escaping it all week and the situation made certain activities, such as sleeping, less than comfortable.
Thursday was filled with the usual pre-race errands to include check-in, course driving, and a short brick workout. At the recommendation of a Kona veteran, I did my lone bike ride before the race on the Hawi descent. As advertised, I found it to be windy and speedy but did not expect it to present any issues for me unless there were crazy gusts on Saturday.
Friday was a more relaxed day, but I am always amazed at how quickly the time evaporates before a half or full IM. After a quick swim on the course and brunch with the group, it was nearly time to check bikes and gear bags in. I pounded my usual last supper (chicken parm) and hit the sheets with Taylor at a reasonable hour in case sleep would find its way to me somehow.
I must not have fully yet adjusted from east coast time, because I got some of the best sleep before a major event I have ever got. Over six hours with only one interruption was not bad at all. We headed out early as planned and made it to transition at the King Kam Hotel with plenty of time to spare. It worked great for me and my teammates to take care of everything and meet up in the hotel for last minute words of advice from Coach Shelly and encouragement from the rest of the support crew. After a few final wishes of good luck, we were ushered from the beach into the water to tread until the cannon. With middling swim prowess at the WC level, I chose to seed myself accordingly. I put myself not in the front row but a couple rows behind and mostly centered to the first buoy we would reach. Unless you are coming first out of the water, the swim can be full contact all the way regardless of starting position in the age group male wave. I was constantly bumping into swimmers, at one point absorbing an elbow to the goggles that fortunately just increased the suction to my face.
In spite of the swarm of bodies and the noticeable chop, my watch read just under 30 minutes at the turn back to T1. This gave me hope to finish around the 60 minute mark as I was starting to feel my stroke and ready to turn up the volume. However, it turned out that we actually had more of a push on the way out and had to fight the water a bit to get back to transition. As disappointed as I was with my time, I knew it was decent enough and would not prevent me from having a good day.
I moved through transition well, ensuring I made use of the hoses to rinse off the salt water and sand before getting some help from a volunteer with zipping up my tri suit. A short run around to my bike and I was off. This was arguably the smoothest transition in any IM for me to date.
Every single person with experience on the island from Coach Shelly on through some Kona veterans I spoke to about the approach to this race preached patience and conservatism. Over and over again, this point was repeated. Not only are the heat and wind conditions potentially brutal for anyone, my own abilities at the IM distance in such conditions was a total unknown. With these considerations, I went out very cautiously from the start all the way to the 60 mile marker in Hawi. I rode my power when it felt easy to do so, but allowed myself to spin 10-20 watts below for certain sections when it made sense to do so. For these first 60 miles my preference was to get passed and fall back to the required following distance instead of playing leapfrog or forcing myself to pass unless it was absolutely necessary. I think I passed maybe 5 riders total for this first section of the ride. I was definitely still racing and having a blast just being in the moment and pinching myself that I was there. Everything was going to plan and despite the lower wattage, I came through 56 miles in 2:42 thanks to some faster sections with minimal wind.
The ascent to Hawi was where some real gloom began to fall on me. For the first time I could feel the famed winds blasting at me as if I was riding into a brick wall. I was also noticing more and more that the bottom of my right foot was flaring up whenever I applied pressure with it- something that has never really happened to me before. I was not sure if anything could be done about it other than to keep alternating my positioning and pedal stroke, but nothing did much to alleviate the pain. It was really cool to have a front row seat to the pro races as they came by, but it was more demoralizing to see Nathan and so many other age group men that started with me go whizzing by downhill in the other direction. Some of the dark and dangerous thoughts that can creep into the mind of an athlete revealed themselves in these moments of the climb. How did they get so absurdly far ahead of me? Do I really belong here? Maybe triathlon isn’t my thing after all. On and on it went, irrationally.
Needless to say, I could not have been much happier to finally make it up to Hawi and grab my ice cold bottles from special needs (thanks to Taylor for urging me to freeze them!). It was there that I set about employing part two of the bike plan. I must admit to stealing a page out of the book of Bryan Rhodes, a legendary IM champion and 9x Kona finisher. His bike strategy calls for a push from the momentum of the Hawi descent through the highway back to town. The theory is that many others will have burned themselves up in the first 60 miles and be much less resistant to passes on the way back. I had to smile a bit and count myself grateful not only for the advice but for things coming together as I followed it. Suddenly I was reversing the flow of the race and taking over multiple competitors at a time with relative ease. As prophesized, there were many riders coasting certain sections of the downhills or dogging the uphills. The lead up to each aid station was apparently an excuse to sit up and soft pedal as soon as it was in view. My power numbers elevated as I regained confidence and felt like I was in the race with some purpose.
I continued to execute the nutrition and hydration plans as prepared, using water from aid stations to augment my reserve bottles as well as to squirt myself down and keep the body temperature cool. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse at the end of the ride. I made a couple of mistakes that in other races might not have presented much difficulty but are inexcusable in Kona. First, I did not bring enough salt pills and ran out with about an hour to go. Second, I was not aware of the location of the final aid station (mile 90 something?) and was foolishly banking on refueling at the expected station in the 100-105 mile range as they were spread 7 miles apart everywhere else on the course. These matters were compounded by the fact that I also did not wear sunscreen and could feel the burn taking hold. So no fluids, no salt, in a 90 degree wind tunnel for the last 45 minutes of a five hour plus ride with a mysterious aching foot… not exactly what you visualize in your pre-race fantasies. Cursing myself for the scenario, I adjusted down my power back to under race watts in an effort not to make things any worse or harder than they needed to be until arriving back in town.
I came into T2 pretty upset with myself and assigned more transition tasks than usual. I was prepared to hit the bathroom and change into my run kit, then begin operation rebound. Upon dismount my legs confirmed that I was in a bit of a hole. I handed off my bike and gingerly made my way around the transition area until I was pointed to my bag by fellow teammate Amie Quinn, then received my run gear from Doug Gaibler! It was nice to see some unexpected friendly faces. The positivity was short-lived unfortunately, as the contents of my bag yielded a tube of BASE salt that had come open and fully emptied into my shoe. Perfect. I resigned myself to multiple cups of Gatorade and water on my way out. It was nice at least to see fellow racers Steven Keller and Dan Szatja in the changing tent to wish each other good luck. It was an ugly transition, but the time was used appropriately.
The first few miles on Ali’i Drive were soundly the worst I have felt coming off the bike in quite some time, likely dating back to some of my first ever triathlons. I was seriously worried about a major implosion on the run, which was the last thing I wanted to happen here. New goal: don’t blow up. I went into damage control straight away, and sadly the Kona pace I had trained for all summer became an afterthought very quickly. Instead, I did something I have stubbornly refused to do in any race up to this point as a runner snob- walk the aid stations. Looking back, this pride-swallowing move probably salvaged my race. Not only did I bounce back in my hydration, but walking a bit seemed to help with my foot (which remained painfully sore for the first 4-5 miles). The only thing missing in my rebound was some concentrated salt.
By mile 9-10, I had settled into what was my relegated easy pace and was feeling a bit better- just in time to tackle the climb up Palani Road and turn onto the desolate and fully exposed Queen K. I came by Henry near the top of the hill and we exchanged some much needed words of encouragement. We both knew the real fun was just beginning. I continued to go to work, passing in between the aid stations and trying not to care about how much time I was giving back when I went through them. Around the 13 mile mark, the BASE salt tent loomed large like the wettest oasis amidst the driest, most barren desert. I had no idea I could ever be so excited about salt. With a salute to the tremendous guys manning the tent, I snatched a tube and immediately hit it about six times. The effect was tangible almost instantly, and I went on to use the tube multiple times per aid station the rest of the way.
One final setback reared itself when nature called for a pit stop shortly thereafter. On this day and with more than 10 miles left to go, I abated. I dealt with a one minute increase to pace on that mile, which was a worthy trade. Soon all that remained was a 5k in the energy lab and 10k to the finish. Piece of cake. The energy lab was as expected for sure: a place of runner desperation and yet somehow magical for all the history that seeps through it. I moved through it well, but my pace was starting to falter a bit. It was not until making the turn for home that I was actually ready and willing to let it rip a little. I mustered a few good miles on the way back, “blowing the doors off” of as many competitors as I could. It helped that I had figured out in the energy lab that I would be fairly close to breaking the ten hour barrier and I wanted to leave no doubt.
In spite of all the ups and downs of the day, I had no problem enjoying myself in the chute to the finish. Completion of an Ironman is a feeling unlike any other and one that should be celebrated regardless of the day’s performance.
Regrettably, my finishing time of 9:55:56 was not an accurate representation of my fitness in my opinion. Prior training and race efforts from this year verify that- and it is discouraging any time you feel as though you did not get the most out of yourself. I was open to just finishing and taking experience from triathlon’s biggest stage, but deep down hoping for more than that. I find solace in my race management when things went south and how I was successfully able to make adjustments in the moment.
I also was tested more and learned more about myself as an athlete due to the challenges presented by Kona. Here is the short list of my takeaways for use (God willing) the next time I am on the Big Island:
- Kona demands more contingency planning than usual
- A great race is possible with proper race planning and execution, but low margin for error exists
- Heed advice given by those who have been there and done that- although nothing can substitute for one’s own experience
- Lowering expectations is key to mentally staying in the race- conditions may prohibit fitness from coming through
- Traveling earlier could be better (acclimation to heat could have avoided the hot spot on my foot?, would be more adjusted to the time zone, have a more spaced out and less stressful race week)
- Air conditioning in the accommodations is crucial- as much for the support crew as for racers
I will close the piece much like I opened it, with a dose of perspective. First, those of us who compete have much to be thankful for. I personally am grateful for my health and ability to even participate in athletics. Nothing is guaranteed in this mortal life and we are reminded all too often of that. I am grateful for my family, girlfriend, coach, training partners, and friends who are there for me through thick and thin. And for the volunteers, worthy competitors, and race directors that make racing possible. Without them, there are no events at all.
Second: irrespective of results, it is important to keep in mind why we as athletes participate in endurance events. All of us are in it for different reasons, but without the “why” there can be no “how.” For me, Ironman is about chasing the limits of the human body and spirit. It is not necessarily the personal records, awards, or finisher recognition. Those are byproducts. It is about turning the impossible to the possible- but without the glamour. Passionately dedicating oneself to a far-fetched dream and refusing to be stopped, day in and day out. Unwaveringly and diligently working to improve in a constant pursuit of excellence.