The words of an Ironman on Kona

There is a lot of time to ponder the truth out there on the road in an Ironman. It is not enough just to finish.

Where do I start?

I’ll avoid the 13 month build up and say that before flying to Kona I was fit. My numbers were telling me that I was the fittest I had been, my body though was telling me that it was tired. My mind kept telling my body that it would be alright when it freshened up. I hoped this was true as deep down I was thinking I may have been a little over cooked, I just seemed to lack that zip in the legs that I had felt a year earlier before qualifying at Tenby. But this was taper time, doesn’t everyone feel like this?

The 7-8 days leading up to the race were spent swimming at Dig Me beach, cycling the Queen K and running Ali’i drive. The heat was extreme but it did feel that as the days went by it got easier (with the exception of running which felt 30 secs / mile slower for the same effort back home).

The heat made me realise just why and how athletes capitulate here in Kona, the heat here just cooks you, poor pacing, hydration, nutrition and salt intake here will manifold itself 10 times. A few changes were made to race day with the purchase of an xlab torpedo bottle, as the bottles of powerbar perform were given out in screw top bottles and the purchase of cooling arm sleeves. I decided to also use salt tablets as well as my original plan of nuun tablets in first 2 bottles.

What also changed was my attitude to racing an Ironman, there was no way I was coming all the way out here to end up sat on the side of the road. While talking to two past winners (Chrissie and Macca) the overriding comments were ‘don’t go too hard on bike as it comes back to hurt you.’

A week before the race I did the 3.8k training swim in 1:13. I was a little disappointed as I cramped in calves and hamstrings after 1 hour of swimming. I hoped on race day that I could do 1:10 as the training swim was both long 4K+ and only 1 day after arriving.

Training rides were proving that it was both hot and windy on the Queen K, the first ride I did the day after arriving was 1:30 on the queen K. After riding out to scenic lookout John (Littlewood) and I turned into a ferocious headwind. A 20 minute interval at half IM intensity (on John’s powermeter) left my heart rate rising to CP20 levels. However, the following days ride from Waikaloa to Hawi and back gave me a lot more confidence. The winds up at Hawi were quiet that day and a world away from what would meet us on race day.

Running as I said was slower for the same effort as back home, I ran on Ali’i drive (bare chest with heart rate strap of course) 3 times and despite it’s rolling roads was running between 6:30-7:00 miles. A slow brick run at 7:30 pace confirmed the likely speed I would hopefully run at. A run in and out of the energy lab reaffirmed that it was hot in there while it also pointed out it’s a long way back to Kona once you get back on the queen K. (7 miles in fact)

The rest of the 8 days prior to the race were spent looking around the expo and blagging some swag. T Shirts, hats, visors, swim caps, towels and gels/bars galore and enough powerbar perform and chocolate milk to sink the coffees of Hawaii boat. The parade of nations and opening party were both done although not sure I would do them 2nd time round, while the slowtwitch party and underpants run were highlights of race week. In fact the underpants run was one of the funniest things I have done, how often do you get to run about in budgie smugglers, cheesy glasses and a Bjorne Borg sweatband?

Both John and I also spent some time relaxing at Huggo’s, listening to Bob Babbitt interview the contenders and past race champions, getting the chance to speak with the likes of Keinle, Chrissie and Macca was a great way of gaining more intelligence on the race. Our condo was fantastic, it felt easy to chill out there and only a mile from the pier meant getting into and of town was easy, Julia (my wife) arrived on Wednesday before the race and this proved to be another help in relaxing before race day.

So cut to race morning. A great sleep, I felt very little nerves which for me has become the norm in last 2 years at Tenby. My first few IM were done off about 2hrs sleep per night in the run up as things usually circle in my mind, mainly that I hate swimming with other people. But out here in Kona I felt at ease once I decided to back it off and manage the day as opposed to trying to race it and risk blowing up on the Queen K.

I woke before the alarm, ate some toast and my usual gallon of coffee (this time Kona’s finest). John was up and going through his routine. I felt calm and focused. Clearing myself out proved yet again no problem thanks to the coffee and after saying goodbye to Julia (don’t do anything stupid she said) myself, John, Paul Deen and Jenny Hill headed down the mile walk to the pier by foot. A slow procession of triathletes headed down Ali’i drive, what we didn’t realise was we could of got dropped close to the pier by car and saved our legs.

Firstly it was in to a queue to get body numbered, this was the least efficient process of the whole registration, bike and bag racking process that involves Ironman. From here I went to the bike to setup nutrition for the day…. bollacks!!! I had left my snickers in the fridge, first error of the day. Tyres pumped to 120 psi and bike loaded with cliff bars or bonk breaker bars, Gu gels and 2 bottles of drink in the shape of powerbar perform with added Nuun tablets.

I had watched the pro men and women start their races and noted that they started bang on 6:25 & 6:30 so there was no need to be at the start line treading water till just before 6:50. I was undecided on where to start the swim until I got on to Dig Me beach. I would usually go front right on a clockwise swim allowing my left side only breathing to keep swimmers on my left and avoid sighting to much. Here the high pedigree of athletes means that most want the shortest line too, a lot of people had said pre race that left side was the place to start, this would mean a lot of sighting for me as I would not see the crowds to my right while breathing to my left.

On swimming out to the end of the pier I noticed not many people in the middle and even less people behind the big TYR floating sign. I figured this was perfect, 2-3 lines of swimmers in front and no one behind. Quick glance back at Ali’i drive and the pier, wow so many people watching and boooom!!!! The cannon goes off at 6:50.

The plan for an easy start works, no one swimming over me and plenty of space with minimal biff, I really don’t like this early stage of the day, I concentrate on keeping a good breathing pattern and finding a rhythm, about 10-15 minutes in things start to get a bit more compact, a few swimmers go past and I jump on a guys feet, occasionally I tap his toes and upset my rhythm but this feels good, certainly not hard swimming. Soon the body glove boat appears and I’m already at the 1st turn point, a short stretch to round the 2nd boat and I glance at my watch -36 minutes dead, stay on these feet and I’ll get home in 1:12 I think. I will take that. The feet remain easy to keep, another swimmer comes past, I change feet. Soon the fast women AG swimmers come steaming through, this breaks the rhythm but I don’t lose the feet, an hour into the swim with no cramp and I lift my head to take a look at how much further, Damn!!! that looks further than 12 minutes swimming, how right I was. Somehow it took 44 minutes to swim back, not sure how? Did I follow the wrong feet? Was it too comfortable? Was the swim long? This last point obviously does not account for the difference in times out and back.

Anyway it was what it was, a 1:20 swim, not what I had planned or trained for. I wondered how much slower others were? John usually always swims 8 minutes faster than me, he did in the practice swim. What I was surprised at was how cool I was with this, don’t worry I thought get on the bike and make time up on bike and run. I saw Julia leaving T1 and set about 112 miles of whatever the lava fields had to throw at me. The first 20 minutes or so are spent riding around town, Down Palani, up Kuakini, down Kuakini and up Palani before starting on the Queen K. I felt good, there was lots of packs and passing and repassing of others. I was mainly passing people and not seeing them again, first aid station came and I took water to cool myself (Julia had written DRINK and STAY COOL on both hands as well as LOVE YOU DADDY) topped my torpedo up with perform and took another bottle of water to pour over me on way out of aid station. My nutrition plan has remained constant in all 7 previous Ironman races, half a bar every 30 mins, a gel at every 15 mins past the hour and at 15 minutes to the hour anything that takes my fancy (fluid, chomps, banana).

There were plenty of drafters out there, you could tell the guys who wanted to ride legal and the ones who were looking for a free ride, at about 20-25 miles I had caught up with a huge pack, I had gradually reeled them in (its clear to see a mile or so up the road) I had not seen a draft buster so far and was not prepared to sit on the back of this group and get pinged, I went hard on the outside and carried this on to the next aid station, the head wind had picked up and a guy holding a Japaneese flag on a long pole at Waikoloa was having trouble holding it. I don’t think anyone had passed me so I turned around after about 20 minutes to see the same pack of riders behind. This wound me up and I put an effort in to get clear.

(Note – a lot of race reports I have read have mentioned the drafting, penalties for blocking, failing to drop back and overtake in time and that lots of people were in the penalty tents. I did not see any draft busters until 30 miles and not many people in the penalty tents. To me the drafters were clear to see, penalising people for failing to fall back etc seems harsh, especially when people overtook you and then eased off the gas).

Pulling clear of the pack on the rollers at the end of the Queen K I descended into Kawaihai. I had now left the Queen K and started the climb up to Hawi. Paul Deen rode up beside me at the start of the climb, I had passed him on way down from the Queen K. We chatted briefly, he had swam 1:08 the same as his training swim, this disheartened me a little as I had hoped that the all athletes were slower and not just me.

We yoyo’d back and forth and he pointed out that Owen Martin was just in front. It turned out that both Owen and I had ridden much of the course together, he like me had no intention of drafting and we had pulled away from the packs. Owen was later to suffer from a mechanical that stuffed his bike split. Paul and I chatted on the climb briefly about the pro race that was coming back down from Hawi, it was surreal being part of the same race.

The crosswinds had picked up and at 2:15 into the ride I realised I hadn’t taken my half a bar at 2hrs. I decided to take the planned gel and told myself to not miss another. Climbing up to Hawi I was passing lots of athletes, things were getting strung out by the climb and the wind and I reached the turn around feeling good. I decided not to pick up the bottle I had left in special needs and to continue with the perform. Twinges of cramp in the inside of my thighs had started and I took a salt tablet which seemed to do the trick, I also managed to take a pee while gripping on for dear life on the descent from Hawi.

I passed Richard Evershed, he was the same AG as me and the AG winner at IMUK, he told me he had nothing in his legs but that John was doing well up the road. Would I see him? I didn’t think so. Not on the bike at least. Descent of Hawi finished and right turn back onto the Queen K with what seemed like every athletes dream at this point of the race…. A strong tailwind.

The pedalling was easy, the legs spinning out in 53×11. This was going to be the best end to a 112 mile bike ride imaginable, every bottle bar one was missed on the way through an aid station due to not slowing down enough then in the blink of an eye it was gone!!! The tailwind that was to be the saviour of my run legs had been replaced by a headwind for the last 20 miles. My mood changed and I could not face forcing half a clif bar down my throat on 4.5hrs of riding.

Athletes were spread out now, they were finding the headwind tough. I continued to push on making progress through the field up towards the airport, energy lab turn off and soon there were helicopters circling, suggesting the men’s leader was running the other way towards the enegy lab. Keinle had some lead over Van Lierde, I reckoned at least a mile. Go Sebi I thought.

I had eaten half a bar at 5:00 hrs into the bike ride and was stepping off the bike after 5:12 in the saddle. Before returning to town I had managed another pee and to get my feet out of my shoes in preparation for T2. A volunteer grabbed the bike and I had a run around the pier to pick up my bag which was given to me by a volunteer (I have to say the volunteers in Kona, all 5000 of them are brilliantly organised). I had put spare socks in the bag and decided that nice new socks with talc would be nice instead of the urine sodden socks I had on. I also decided for the first time to wear a hat in order to stash ice under while running, this I suppose defeated the object of new dry socks very quickly.

I saw Julia very quickly on leaving T2, smiled and got on with the job at hand. I also asked if John was ok? Lucy (John’s wife) replied yes. I guess we would see each other soon at the turn around before St Peters church. A 3:20 run would get me under 10 hours, my aim was 7:30’s from the start with very little room for slowing down. The support along Ali’i drive was amazing with so many shouts of “awesome” and “you got this”.

The first mile was 7:20 and got me to outside our condo, I glanced up at the banner Julia had made and the Ironman Wales flag, I smiled, my friends at home watching would give anything to be here in my Newton’s right now, I also thought of Mia and Seb my children back home, their dad was going to suffer today and when it got tough he was going to smile and be thankful of all the sacrifices they and many others had made in order for him to be here on Ali’i drive in the hardest 1 day endurance race in the world. The miles ticked by all at 7:2? / mile. Aid stations involved lots of ice down tri top, under hat and down arm coolers and straight onto coke and any fuel I could get my hands on while not slowing down like many others do. By the turn at 5 miles I had not seen John coming the other way, was he in the portaloo? Had we missed each other at an aid station? Either way I just focussed on controlling what I could… keeping cool, hydrating and taking on simple sugars.

I noticed that I wasn’t seeing many gels at the aid stations and when I did take them they didn’t seem to be swallowed easily, previously I have tried to take a gel at every aid station, now I was focussing mainly on staying cool. The return leg of Ali’i drive was full of music, support, hosepipes it was party time and I was getting in the swing of it, another quick glance at the condo flags gave me inner strength. The support continued up Palani hill. I had decided in advance that I was not going to walk this hill, having not walked in any Ironman marathon I was not starting here. Again the Yanks were cheering “You got this”, “your strong”, “you rock” (god bless the Americans and their enthusiasm for everything). This mile split was slow but given the uphill section of roughly 600-800 meters I felt good.

Turn left onto the Queen K and the support stops instantly, your left with long straights of undulating baking hot carriageway and 2 lines of athletes like worker ants, those that are going to work and those returning from work. Either way none of these ants were smiling much. Richard Evershed ran by me like he was on a 400 meter interval run, this was it, the race was starting in earnest, the point at which many athletes brains tell their bodies that what they are doing is stupid and is voluntary, you can stop if you like body as I have had enough of this idiotic behaviour. For me, this started at mile 18 and the turnaround in the energy lab, I had my first cramps that stopped me dead. About 10 minutes before John and I had passed and I realised barring a meltdown by him we would not be near each other at mile 26.

I decided that a warm bottle of Nuun from my special needs bag was not the drink of choice and that more salt tabs and some pretzels that I licked the salt off would ease the cramps, then the big Newton TV showed Julia and Lucy cheering me on, this was triggered by my timing chip and a great idea by Newton. A quick look at my hand “LOVE YOU DADDY” was all I needed to suffer my way to the finish. At the time I realised I was slowing, what I didn’t realise was how sudden this slowing was until I downloaded my Garmin when back in the UK. Mile splits were 8:30 plus from mile 18-25 and with one short stop for cramp on the return leg of the Queen K 8:30 per mile was all I was capable of. I have not mentioned the heat, it was bloody hot!!! Although I think we were lucky that there was plenty of cloud cover and the infamous energy lab not nearly as hot as it was earlier in the week on a training run.

Why had I slowed? Was it muscular fatigue in the form of cramp? Lack of salt causing cramp? Or a lack of calories on the run? Either way I was suffering and suffering good and enjoying it. I found this posted online somewhere earlier in the week and between miles 18-25 it just made sense.

The words of an Ironman:
There is a lot of time to ponder the truth out there on the road in an Ironman. It is not enough just to finish. One must finish with dignity. One must fight on. If you fight on and finish, it is not important where you are placed because you have won the only contest that counts. You have heard the voice that tells you to walk or stop and quit, and you have silenced it. That voice can be pretty loud at times, but you cross the finish line hot, tired and happy, knowing you have given everything you have got and have fought out the toughest race of your life.

Right turn at Palani, down the hill and the last mile to the finish, there were a few athletes in front that I had no intention of catching despite my pace increasing back to 7:30 for the last mile, a look behind showed no one was likely to catch me either. I was going to get the greatest finish line in triathlon to myself. It really did feel good, run onto the carpet the clock at 10:08:30 and walk through the line to Mike Reilly’s “Richard Lewis. You are an Ironman!!!”

Job done