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My Triathlon Experience of a Lifetime

It’s been 2 weeks now since I competed in one of the biggest races of my life, it was a lot to take in and only now have I reflected enough (and I have done plenty) to give an accurate description of the whole experience. It’s not just the usual humorous tale of how my race went as Kona certainly is not just any old race, it’s a massive occasion full of emotions and providing challenges that you don’t get in ‘any old race’. So hopefully it will give everyone (that has the time to read it!) an insight into the whole experience, however with more and more of our members racing at Iron Man distance now, some with aspirations to race here in Hawaii the report’s intention is to give an insight into what to expect here and help those that are sure to qualify in the near future to prepare for their ‘Triathlon Experience of a Lifetime’! This is very coach driven of me, and I have inserted Tips in bold and italics so you can pick up advice that will hopefully help when you are Hawaii bound, sorry can’t help coaching you even when I’m not there! ;)
My Triathlon Experience of a Lifetime
Adulation, relief, excitement, appreciation and whole bunch of other emotions as I crossed the finish line at Kona.

Back in May I raced Lanzarote Iron Man and very fortunately picked up a slot to race at the Kona Iron Man World Champs. It’s only now that I realise just how fortunate I really was! At Lanzarote in May I was probably the best prepared I could ever be for racing an Iron Man, the race did not got exactly to plan (what IM ever does?) but it went well enough and I was Kona bound! :)

Heading for Kona!
 

The qualification at Lanzarote was completely unexpected, so I came back home and continued with my race calendar (planned in January) thinking I could just squeeze Kona in at the end of the season. I raced standard distance qualifiers for the ITU worlds, ETU standard and sprint distance championships.

The combination of competing every weekend and racing at faster paces than I been training for left me with reduced fitness and ultimately injured resulting in me not being able to run or cycle by July. So please be aware of this and make sure that when you qualify, you have a period of rest then get back into training with a short base phase before putting your body under stress again.

Tip No1 If you qualify and accept a place for Kona, keep your training plan, race type and schedule specific to your race at the Iron Man World Champs. Remember you are now preparing for the biggest race you will ever compete in!

For one Reason or another with things going on at home my IM training didn’t really start in anger until I was in the USA supporting Andri in Chattanooga. This was 5 weeks before Konaand at this point I felt awful and nowhere near the fitness levels I had been at that stage before Lanzarote! 

Tip No2 Life sometimes gets in the way of training but once you start your training plan to Kona do your best not to have long periods without training, Iron Man prep should be a long slow build to fitness. Training gaps will reduce fitness and could lead to over training closer to the race which will not pay off. The taper phase should be a gradual run down starting 3 weeks prior to the event you don’t want to be picking your training intensity up during that taper stage!

That being said I did put in some fantastic training on the west coast and when I arrived at Kona. However it was only the week before the race that I felt I could hit any of the power levels or paces that I used in Lanzarote. 

Tip No3 Know your IM training power and paces before you hit your taper phase and make sure you train using those thresholds. If you start your prep early you will know these thresholds well before you get to taper (they MAY pick up slightly during training)

So the week of the race was here and the atmosphere was building, every day more and more athletes were down at the Pier in swim practise area, more and more athletes were running up and down Ali’i Drive, the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway was a mass of very very fit looking athletes. Athletes that effortlessly came pass me on the bike, glided pass me on the run and in the ocean everyone seemed to be a fantastic swimmer. This felt quite different to any other race, there were great athletes here, in fact none of them seemed to be average! 

As the expo grew, the spectator seating was built, course barriers put in place and big buoys clearly marked out the swim course you could feel the tension and excitement from every athlete, spectator and person that live or worked there, Iron Man really does take over the island.

Day before the race I did the final set up on my bike, decided what nutrition I was going to carry and what and where I could pick up nutrition on the course. I had decided to train on Gatorade and cliff blocks in the US rather than my usual nutrition as this is what was on the course, this worked OK for me but that being said:

Tip No4 If you find a nutritional product or food/drink that works for you then stick with it! There are ways to carry all of your own nutrition and be completely self-sufficient on the bike so don’t switch just because a particular sponsor is supplying the race, it may not suit you or may not suit you as well as your usual products in the race.

Race day was here the alarm went off at 4am and all of the nervousness that I had been feeling for the last week was gone. I had racked my bike the day before, my bike and run bags were in transition with everything I needed for T1 and T2 and I had now decided exactly what I was going to do, swim, bike and run strategy sorted in my head (the night before!) and I was looking forward to getting in that water!

Tip No 5 It is a great idea to decide your race strategy well before your race, it will help your training and prevent unnecessary stress in the lead up to the race, remember you should know your race paces make sure you study the course routes, aid stations and rules well in advance so there are no surprises!

First to start were the male Pros, 15mins later female Pros, then it was our turn the biggest field 1603 age group men got into the water and swam to the start line near the end of the Pier. I knew this swim was going to be hectic, the line of age group men stretched out around 200m from the Pier into the ocean and was seven to eight men deep. I have never been kicked and punched so much just waiting on the start line. We were treading water there for around 10 minutes waiting for the start gun and the sheer volume of people in this tight space meant that kicks and forearm slams were coming from everywhere as athletes just tried to stay afloat, make space and react to the starter shouts to keep behind the the start line. You could feel the anticipation and excitement from everyone. I was close to the Pier with direct line of sight to the first buoy and sitting just behind the first line of athletes unable to squeeze to the front with five or six lines of swimmers behind me when the start gun on the Pier (a cannon) nearly deafened me in my right ear and we were off!

I knew it was going to be busy at the start and I was happy with this I didn’t mind it at all, I was used to it! I knew that usually this lasts for around 1000m on a mass start getting gradually more and more spacious till eventually you can swim unhindered for the majority of the swim. At Kona however the 200m line of athletes quickly converge into a 20m channel alongside the buoys, unlike other races where very poor swimmers drop back and spaces start to appear or where it’s a rolling start with designated swim times, everyone is a good swimmer and they are all with you the whole way round with the most common swim time probably being just under the hour mark, which was exactly what I was planning!

Tip No 6 Make sure you are used to being touched or touching someone else for the whole time you swim the 3.8km course. No one is trying to beat you up (that takes up too much effort!) but you need to be comfortable swimming shoulder to shoulder arm to arm and constantly making contact for the whole hour, don’t get stressed!

During this race I wore a swim skin (non neoprene suit) as Kona is a non wetsuit swim and the skin is supposed to increase swim speed by up to 3 seconds per 100m, I’m definitely not convinced! I did the practise swim race the week before in a pair of speedo jammer trunks in just over 59mins in the skin on the IM race day itself I came out around a minute slower. I know it’s impossible to compare sea conditions but it seemed pretty similar the slower time on race day I put down to the congestion and think the swim skin had little effect on my speed! That is until T1 when I realised that my tri suit (underneath my skin) had jammed in the skin zip and it took me more than a minute to get my swim skin off before I could put it in my bike bag and head to my bike. Therefore any time savings that possibly could have been made by the skin were more than lost in getting it off.

Tip No7 If you decide to wear a swim skin practise in it with your tri suit underneath (I had previously just swam in swim skin only). Practise taking it off, time yourself and factor this lost time into any gains you may make? I believe the difference made is negligible and the potential to cost time taking it off outweights any benefits. Therefore it is my belief you would be far better off buying a new snug fitting tri suit with a good hydrodynamic rating for non-wetsuit swims.

 

What’s wrong with this bloody zip???.....
 

After the kerfuffle in T1 I was on my bike feeling good about my swim and trying to forget the swim skin!! My plan was to stick to a power that I had given myself (the day before the race) this seemed to go pretty well and I was feeling good, bang on my power target and finding it easy! The bike course at Kona is not a difficult course, courses like Lanza for instance are much more challenging. So if you pick that course up and put it anywhere else in the word it would be a pretty easy 180km ride (well as easy as one of those can be??) But it is not anywhere else in the world, the combination of heat and humidity in Kona can not and Should not be underestimated!

Obviously you should plan to get all the carbs in that you need on the bike, but as important is fluid and salt intake. You sweat a hell of a lot in that climate, it is far more noticeable on the run than it is on the bike but don’t you worry you are losing lots of fluid which must be replaced! I always remember what Jan Frodeno said once about IM racing I think it was after Kona but anyway it always sticks out in my mind ‘if you don’t want a pee before 60kms on the bike then your in trouble!!’ So this pops into my mind at the turnaround point (around 95kms into the bike) and I realise I haven’t pee’d not only that I don’t want to pee, I must get more water at the next aid station!

Tip No8 Get fluid in early on the bike, even if you don’t feel like drinking drink! As important as water is salt, which needs to be taken with the water you can use electrolyte tabs in the water but I prefer to use salt capsules which are a little more potent! Once you start to dehydrate it is almost impossible to get back to a hydrated state during high intensity exercise especially in those conditions! Great idea is to carry a rear bottle holder behind your saddle and always have a full bottle of water the extra 500grams or so will not slow you down as much as dehydration! Studies have shown that a 5% loss in body weight through dehydration equates to a 30% loss in performance and more weight loss than that can be very dangerous, which is exactly to reason why at Kona they weigh every single athlete on the morning of the race and mark that weight against their race number.

Anyway the bike course runs a little loop in the town then there is a short climb up to the Queen K Highway to start the long out and back course up to the turnaround at Hawi (the highest point) and back to town. The Queen K Highway (Highway 19) out is FAST it’s rolling with no steep gradients and prevailing tail winds, don’t get carried away here and stick to your power or slightly below! I managed this well and was feeling good!

Little climb from town and starting the long out and back.
 

Tip No9 There are aid stations every 7km on the bike (every 10 to 20mins) make use of them and pick up water for your bike when needed, but even if you just use it to spray on yourself it will help keep your temperature down and reduce fluid loss through sweat. 

Shortly after the end of Highway 19 you will start the gradual climb to Hawi (it is actually rolling but predominantly up hill for around 40kms) on highway 270 this is where you need to be careful you will think to yourself this is now the hard bit up hill and be tempted to push more power thinking it’s all downhill back, don’t! Coming back has head winds on the downs and cross wind gusts that have been known to pick cyclist up with their bikes and dump them off the road, hence the reason disc wheels are NEVER allowed at Kona! Also on the way back ‘down’ the gradient kicks up more times than you think and these kick ups are tough!

Tip No10 Keep to your threshold power (or very slightly above) going up the climb to Hawi, coming back down is difficult! I have found each time I rode the course it very easy here to ride too hard up and suffer on the way down thinking it’s going to be easier it isn’t!!!

Do not push too hard on the climb to Hawi
 

So I kept to my power therefore coming back down from Hawi I was feeling good and spot the target I had set myself! However I still didn’t want to pee even though I drank frequently at that point and in fact it wasn’t until I finished the bike that I wanted to used the loo in T2.

Coming  back on the Queen K is hard going into a head wind and here I was starting to feel my target power more difficult to achieve. When I finished the bike my average power  was 1 or 2 watts down for the whole ride, that doesn’t sound too bad but that loss was over the last 6Okm of the ride, which probably equates to a 4 or 5watt loss in power over the last third, this is significant and on reflection was a telltale sign of the effects of dehydration.

Up till now everything had pretty much gone as expected, swim time within a minute of what I expected, bike slightly slower than I thought but not disastrous! So I was confident I could still have a very good race in my first IM world champs!

T2 went smoothly and I was glad of the fact that I actually wanted a pit stop in the loo at last!! Coming into town one thing that you are immediately aware of is the crowd. There are spectators all the way through the route and especially at the turn around, but in town the sheer volume of support (in sound and numbers) is both uplifting and emotional, you ready do feel like these people are behind you ‘all of them!’

So I headed out on the run and the first km was on my intended pace same with the second km you are carried along with the wave of support and good will of a great crowd! At Km 2 I see Andri who told me I was in 11th place off the bike and 13th place out off T2 (perhaps due to my toilet break?), wow this was so much better than I expected considering some of the talent at this race, what’s more I felt good! So I blew her a kiss and continued to try and maintain my desired pace.

Now this is where I started to notice something unusual, something that I hadn’t noticed in the last week. I was starting to feel very hot. I had been in Kona for around three weeks at this point, when you first get off the plane the thing that hits you is the heat and I thought ‘how the hell am I going to run in this?’ Well after a week or so you start to acclimatise and the runs feel less like running in an oven and more like your indoors with the heating on. At the 3km point on the run it was definitely back to the oven! 

Unfortunately it was a particularly hot day that day with little cloud cover so I did all I could to keep cool! The first 12kms or so of the run is an out and back along Ali’i Drive and the support here is amazing, the streets are lined, people are out on the with hoses beeping horns clapping and shouting encouragement. To help keep cool I was shouting at everyone with a hose ‘spray me’ and they happily did so, every aid station I’d grab ice and poured it in my tri suit, I grabbed cold wet sponges whenever available and put them on my head, down my front, neck, shoulders wherever there was space, water was  being handed out in little paper cups which were just 25% filled so you could run with them, I would grab two or three, two would go over my head and one I would try to drink and throwing the cup in the bin before the end on the aid section. I wanted to run through aid stations so I drank what I could but it wasn’t enough!

On Ali Drive about 5km into the run and it’s starting to feel hot!
 

My pace had slowed I knew that and by the time I see Andri again I was exiting Ali Drive, she did not shout a position to me just words of encouragement to keep going, from this I knew I was slipping back on the placings but I knew that already!

By far the worst part of my race was when the run exited the town! Firstly there is a climb up onto the Queen K Highway and then it’s the long lonely and hot 25km run out to the energy research lab and back. Here I could feel the heat of the black tarmac through the soles of my shoes, my quads were spasming with cramps and I could actually feel a blister forming on the sole of my right foot, wasn’t feeling good!

Trying to keep cool on the energy lab section 
 

Tip No11 On the run You have to think hydration! Salt is another consideration, definitely carry a salt stick! You may want to consider Running with a small bottle that you can fill at the stations and run with, I ran with one all the time in training in Kona then in the race I didn’t have one?? I just can’t get enough water drinking from cups whilst running through stations, if you have the same problem carry one!

As I could not get enough water in whilst running through stations I had to start walking stations to take on as much fluid as possible, also there was not enough salt on the course I definitely felt better once I got some at the 30km mark!

When you start to walk at this stage in the race things really get dark, and getting started again is the most difficult thing to do. You start to cramp and just want to continue to walk to the finish! But all that was going through my mind at that stage were the messages of support before the race, from my club mates back at MedwayTri and Andri’s support throughout the whole process. Messages on FB, on WhatsApp, by Text and emails of support, I can’t mention you all but I thought of every single one of you at some stage in that run and I mean everyone! And that’s when my legs started moving and slowly I got myself running again. I really do have to thank the Club and Andri for that! (and a couple of friends and family too ;)

There is something else I have to thank and that is the final 2km marker. It’s weird you can be in a world of hurt for 30km thinking there’s no way you can do this and then 40km into a run the end is in sight and your body feels no pain??? This Iron man game really is a battle with the mind! But as well as the fact that it’s nearly over the crowd are there calling your name, would love to say they all knew me but it was displayed on my number ;) Never the less it felt as if they did know me, I actually found myself smiling??? And waving to the crowd as I enter Ali drive, I never feel like this at the end of a race especially an Iron Man!

Then as I entered the finishing shoot the noise is unbelievable. I felt so uplifted, so happy, I thought about the whole week and the lead up to Kona everything I had been through and felt that day, and although I heard it a few times before when crossing a finishing line the commentators words this time really meant something to me, ‘YOU ARE AN IRON MAN!!’ and this time I felt it!

The crowd lifts you!
 

 

Return Oct 29, 2017


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