T1 Triathlon Coaching Client Art has had a great season, going from non-triathlete to 3 time Ironman in 18 months. This is his Ironman Hawaii 2012 Full Race Report:
Kona! Ironman Hawaii! Two things came to mind immediately: 1) I’m going to the World Championship Ironman, 2) Shit, will I be able to finish? These two thoughts were with me throughout most of my training.
I had joked around with my T1Triathlon coach that the scene appeared to be something like “ESPN meets the Jersey Shore.” Many people walked around in compression and tri-outfits for a week. Clearly there was serious training happening, though at night, significant partying was the rule—that is, until the last two days before the race, when the atmosphere quickly thickened as over 2000 people prepared to start a very long, difficult day.
I worried tons about my equipment, nutrition, sleep patterns, hydration….and tried to memorize the course, the percent inclines, and noticed where I may find shade on the course. I wondered what numbers coach may give me to follow during the race—what would my power be on the bike? How fast should I go out on the run? I drove the entire bike course and calmed down because after all “It just didn’t seem that bad…” The marathon seemed doable—with only one steep hill. Maybe I would be ok after all???
Coach quickly reminded me that Kona is all about pacing, nutrition and management. Much to my surprise, he did not give me specific numbers to follow but rather a “ballpark.” “Think of this as an EVENT, not a race!” I could not imagine why— after all I had trained harder and longer than I had ever for any other race—and it was the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP!!!” I had to race! Why would I concentrate on enjoying it and taking it all in??? Boy, I would soon find out why!
The gun went off at 6:45 for the pro men and I have never seen water go from blue to white in a second. These guys were like small speed boats. Then women went a few minutes after, and contributed to yet another tidal wave. I started to panic! Greek gods started to undress and walked down the steps into the beach. They are called age groupers, but look more like some experiment in cloning the perfect human being. Right then and there I had my first revelation: whereas I could have everything to lose by making a stupid decision and trying to battle a choppy windy swim, I had everything to gain by pacing myself, and hoping to simply finish this leg of the race. I am not a slow swimmer but I am not fast either. I realized that “average swimmer” at Kona means “really freaking fast” in every day language. I swan slowly to my starting spot: far on the left, two rows back. Before I could really make sure I was properly positioned, the gun went off and I had to swim as if chased by a rabid creature.
The swim start was not easy. The crowd was going wild and the water was a mess. I got kicked in the face only once—followed by a few slaps on the forearms and a few “grabs” to my feet. Five minutes into the swim though I had my second revelation: this swim is just amazing!!!!! It was more like snorkeling than anything. The underwater life was amazing. The visibility unlike any other race, and well, if you took the time to “take it all in,” it was not hard to miss the fact that dolphins were escorting us along the way! It was one of the most special moments of the race—the dolphins, and the fact that most Kona athletes are good enough swimmers to surprisingly stay out of each other’s way. They swim hard, but they swim nicely. We were all anxious but none were panicking, flailing or swimming out of control. Everyone got out of the water and finished the swim! Much to my surprise, I swam about 4 mins ahead of my budgeted hour and 20 mins. Things got off to a great start.
The bike is not my strength. It’s the longest leg. Things can go wrong. Though I can change a tire, I can’t do much else. Let’s face it, mechanical issues are not my forte. They make me feel kind of helpless in spite of anticipating everything that may go wrong. I had 4 CO2 cartridges on board, three tubes, and even a tire. I had double of that in fact, because I placed the exact same amount in my special needs bag. Come to think about it, I could have been tech support for a few athletes myself.
I got on my bike trying to have positive thoughts—nothing is going to go wrong. Its going to be a great ride! Thanks to coach (and Coach’s wife! (who is a 2x Kona Vet)), I restructured my thinking a bit and remembered—“if something goes wrong, Ill just deal with it!” Coach’s Wife had reminded me the week before that after all, its an Ironman—a long day—and something is bound to go wrong. “I’m good!” I thought. Now, lets pedal like a rockstar! Im ready.
And just as I sat on my bike, I realized my chain was off! I dismounted the bike 10 feet from the mount line, turned the bike upside down and got the chain back on. I took a deep breath, smirked, and off to pedaling it was. The winds were picking up. The sun was shinning hotter than I remembered it from days prior, and my stomach was a bit upset.
The ride out and back into town was only about 15 miles long and I was able to practice my nutrition plan—“two bottles every hour, and Gu every 30 mins—drink if your not thirsty, eat even if not hungry.” My stomach was feeling better and I was off to the Queen K on my way to Hawi. It took less than 5 miles on this road to realize what makes this part of the race so hard. The winds are brutal—and of course, you don’t feel those in your car when you drive the course. It was often hard to keep aero position because the cross winds quickly remind you that speed is less important than staying upright on your bike, particularly when someone is trying to pass you and the cross winds threaten to take you both out in tandem, much like falling dominos. But things were going well otherwise—until I realized that my average heart rate was 64 and my power meter was not reading. Nothing was working on my computer. Of course! Why not! It was almost funny. What else could go wrong? Thankfully, I had worked hard with coach to learn what proper pacing feels like. I had to pedal for another 95 miles by feel. I was freaking out a bit—but what good would that do? I had to do it the old way—I guess much like the first ironmen had to do….
The climb to Hawi was excruciating. It felt like a joke. Was I even moving? I was off my seat climbing a road that barely even looked pitched—but oh the wind! In a way, it was nice not to know what to expect—having never done this race. Im not sure one can prepare for what hits you on the bike course. I had much to be thankful for however. I did not feel dehydrated or hungry, I had not had any further mechanical issues, and I had made it to the turn around in under 3 hours, well within my “budgeted 6 hr ride!” Now, all I had to do was get back to Kailua pier—just a half ironman bike to go. And yes, I was ready for the tail wind. It was going to be a break. Boy, I was ready for SPEED!
Guess what? The winds don’t really care what you want. It wasn’t really a tail wind, more like a 45 degree angle cross wind, once again threatening to blow you feet across into the curb. Again, I hung on to dear life thinking that things would lighten up at the 80 mile mark once back on the Queen K. But no. That was not the plan. It started to rain, then the sun came out to bake us all up, and the winds registered 35 to 40 miles an hour per the tech support truck—who was stopped helping about 7 people on the side of the road. Oy vey.
Mile 80 did come after many bottles of Perform, Gus, a bit of cola, and tons and tons of poured water over my head. I thought I was doing well with my nutrition, but guess what, I had not yet peed. I clearly needed to drink more. I had no idea that winds could dehydrate you as well (Jon Rapp just wrote about this in LAVA). Coupled to the sun, I felt slowly pruning. You really have to drink in Kona. Maybe even twice what you think will be necessary.
The turn onto Queen K came up and I had about an Olympic distance bike ride to get to Kailua (I know, its kind of fun to play these games to keep you sane when your ass is on fire and your legs feel like they are made up of wet sand). Maybe things would get easier now? Nope. More cross winds. Even harder. Now I was barely pedaling 13 miles an hour. That would make it over 2 hrs before I could dismount my bike. That would put me over 6 hrs on the bike. Crap. Crap. Crap.
But so it was. At mile 110, I felt disappointed that my bike had been so slow. I had worked the hardest on the bike! Had I failed? Then I looked around and saw a few pros on the run, looking like they were going to die. Crowie was far behind the pack. They looked aweful. I was on my bike while they were about to finish the marathon—but boy, Im not sure I wanted to be them at that point. I felt lucky and took one glance at the amazing views of the lava fields and the ocean. I felt I should take it in before thinking about the next step: a marathon.
There are few times I felt lucky to have rotated in an Intensive Care unit while in Medical School—but not today! In fact, I was happy I had learned how to treat very high fevers in patients. I was going to put this knowledge to use. I was so hot, I needed to really think about cooling off. The heat is just oppressive. It comes from above to bake your scalp and from the lava and the asphalt below to simply finish you up. I had ice under my hat—ice in a vinyl glove in my left hand, cold sponges under my tri suit— and yes, cubes of ice in my shorts—where I never thought I would put them. I barely looked at my GPS—forget time at this point1 This was going to be about finishing this race—about forgetting the fact that I felt blisters the size of Guam in my shoes, that my thighs were chaffing, that my legs ached, that mile markers were not coming fast enough and that it was now the mid afternoon, the winds had calmed down and there was no breeze (why didn’t this happen on the bike?).
You can prepare for the perfect race and keep all your numbers in mind, but sometimes, coach is totally right about it coming down to grit. Things are not always perfect. The first ten miles felt slightly faster than a jog and the hill up Palani road felt like I was undergoing surgery awake and without anesthesia. I made it up the hill only to realize that I had another 16 miles to go (and a little fun segment which some call “the energy lab”). Oh, and there were no trees to find shade or shelter. I had one goal: don’t walk, just keep moving.
I drank at every station—mostly coke now as my stomach felt upset once again. Water was used only for pouring over my head. It was so hot that day, I saw a local child INSIDE the bucket of ice water trying to keep cool! I would not learn that the conditions of the day were far more devastating that they were the year before for another 6 hours. None of us left on the marathon knew that winning times were muh slower than 3rd place winners last year. It was amazing to see these Greek Gods resolving to walk. Some of them were way past the point of caring, now engaging in conversation with other athletes. Some of them were even slap happy. It is really just that hard on the Queen K.
The turn into the Energy lab came up and much to my surprise the initial portion was a decent. I got cocky and ran faster not realizing that what goes down must come up. And so it did—and between mile 18 and 19 I am not proud to admit, as I tried climbing back up and out of the energy lab, I joined the Walkers’ Club—fatigued, confused, emotionally drained. Yes, I walked about half a mile—though I think I used it wisely. I lubed all those important areas, drank, ate, and got myself ready to somehow complete another 7 miles.
Im not sure what happened during those last 7 miles. I picked up the pace, I slowed down, I picked it up again, I drank cola, water, a bit of perform (though the mango flavor is kind of gross)—and even some soup!!! Boy, that is the best feeling in the world. I can’t really explain it but warm salty soup felt like the gift of life at mile 21. A mile later, I got a glow stick. I was just so surreal. I was a mess—now a glowing pink mess! These last few miles were going to be about finishing without pride, without caring that I looked like a wounded animal—running, crawling, limping, whatever.
Something magical happens at mile 25. You have one mile to go and you are back in town. You can hear the microphone announcing names and followed by the words “You are an Ironman!” Your legs pick up the pace—almost without your permission. Your body lightens, your breathing becomes regular, you become taller, your eyes kind of water and before you know it, your are running down a road feeling invincible. You don’t care what you look like. You don’t really care about your standing amongst other competitors. You high five expectators. You pad other athletes that run with you or past you. You just run, fueled by many who for a moment think you are increadible for doing what you have just acoomplished. You feel thankful that you are lucky enough to do this sport—lucky to have friends and family that support you through things like this—lucky to have a coach that has taught you well, while understanding the demands of your life. Most of all, you feel lucky that you have “taken it all in—that you have savored the day.” You are thankful because you have enjoyed—loved—the day.
Then, as you cross the finish line—you hear your name, followed by the word “Ironman!” Your day is almost perfect and nothing else seems to matter. Not even the fact that the clock reads “12:08”and you have set a PR…at Kona!!!!