I’ve struggled a bit writing this report. I know why – it’s because when a race doesn’t go entirely to plan you focus on the negatives. You question the decisions you made – whether you paced it right, whether you stuck to the plan, whether you got your nutrition right. And most importantly, whether you were tough, especially in those critical moments which is when the toughness really matters.
So did I? And was I? Well let’s see…
I was lucky enough to arrive in Kona in early September after racing the 70.3 World Champs in Vegas. It’s no secret I’ve taken some time off work this year and I figured it would be foolish not to spend as much time in Kona as possible, so I embraced the opportunity and joined the influx of pros training there in the weeks ahead of the race. I also had company when I arrived from Sonja, Nick and Scott: this isn’t the place to elaborate on the pre-race build up, fun and vats of ice cream consumed but they were fantastic company and I was lucky to have them around. This is probably not the only time that we had Island Style pancakes and Sonja brought some colour into our otherwise dully coordinated lives…
I should also thank Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen who helped enormously with getting me in shape for the swim in Kona, and Steve and the team at Kona Aquatics who welcomed me into their midst for a few weeks of masters swimming ahead of the race. And finally, a big high five to the Powerbar guys on the ground in Kona who were incredibly helpful in terms of providing everything I needed in terms of nutrition, even rushing around the day before the race when I realised last minute that I hadn’t brought quite enough race nutrition to cover racing both Vegas and Kona in one trip. Nothing was too much trouble and I couldn’t ask for a better sponsor, so thank you.
Race day came around soon enough, and after a good sleep and decent breakfast we were heading to the start. Body marking and transition were easy enough, I found Sonja and friend Michelle to hang with and it was almost swim time. A few signs that it might be a stormy day were naturally ignored.
I actually felt pretty relaxed which hopefully is obvious from the below:
Probably the biggest change in my preparation this year was how to approach the swim. No more being a swimming wuss. By race day I had swum masters or in the ocean almost every day for a month, I had swum the full course 5 times, had two sessions with Karlyn and I was swimming better than I have ever been. I survived the swim at St George let’s not forget, where we all had a fun time being dunked by waves like this:
So now I was in Kona and it was time to position myself aggressively and actually do this properly. First step = get a good starting position. Well we got right onto the pier for the pro start to get a good spot into the water and this worked a treat. It means you’re in the water a bit early but hanging onto one of the canoes meant we didn’t have to tread water for more than 5-10mins or so, during which time I was mostly trying my absolute best not to freak out about getting my head kicked in during the swim start. I felt really calm about the rest of the day, but the swim start, not so much. This is Sonja and Michelle in the centre looking uber chilled and me looking like I might cry, but not as bad as the woman in front of me who actually is crying (and thanks to Sonja whose photo this is).
We got a fantastic spot at the start, a little left of the buoy and around 2/3 across. I don’t remember the actual start but apparently the cannon didn’t go off so Mike Reilly just went GOOOOO and the gun fired a few seconds later. The next few minutes were a lesson to me in what real Ironman swimming is all about. The first 5 mins or so I just kept my head down, breathed every 2 strokes and went as fast as I could. There is zero point in sighting when you are in a mass that big. You aren’t “on feet” because there are just bubbles everywhere and you are all being swept along like a big wave. I knew at some point I was likely to panic so I just kept repeating “follow the line” “follow the line” “follow the line” to myself every second until it got better. My friends and teammates at Black Line London, those few minutes were for you.
And it did get better, but it took until nearly the turnaround buoy for things to thin out. Some of the bashing was pretty bad – I don’t know if it’s the pink hat but there was some aggressive stuff including one dude that hit me on the head every single stroke for about 10mins and followed me any time I tried to move into some space. I was swimming with a lot of blue hats though which was kind of cool and as the race started to sort itself out I was in a happy place. I noticed the strong current which pulled us all right on the way out and left on the way home. I had a few cramps on the way back and one kick to the face which dislodged my goggles but otherwise the second half was pretty uneventful. Up the steps I saw 1.11.50 on the clock on the pier and I was pretty a-ok with that, I’d been hoping to swim under 1.10 but with some cramping, a bit of extra distance and a decent swell I knew I’d had a good swim. Having talked since to friends who are quality swimmers and who swam around 1.09-1.10, I’m even happier. Maybe next time I race Kona I’ll have got those times closer to the hour, but that’s 10 minutes off my swim here in 2010 and I’ll take that. Trust me, I was happier than I looked!
Quickly I was onto the bike and my only thought was to stick to the plan. Don’t push the watts, take it “easy” out to Kawaihae and get the nutrition and fluids in. This also meant I had plenty of time to take in what was happening around me. And mostly what was happening was a shedload of drafting. The main problem I saw constantly was people not straight wheel-sucking but just sitting say 4-5m back. So obviously when you pass that person you are already in the draft zone of the person ahead, so you have to pass them too. This means you are always assessing whether you are able to pass the whole group or whether you are willing to back right off on the power, which will feel ridiculously easy, and sit at 7m behind the last man in the line. I did a bit of both, but erred on the side of holding back and not spiking my power, which in hindsight was probably a mistake as I feel 5-10mins up the road was really where I needed to be and if I’d been a bit more aggressive this might’ve been on.
Added to that was a serious amount of blatant cheating. Not dropping back at all when I pass you and then immediately going round me again and forcing me to drop back. Not loving that. Sitting a metre or two back and a couple of feet off to the side so you can take a good look at my race number (yes we were in the same age group and not loving your top 10 finish). Not cool. And finally the girl/guy (sorry couldn’t tell) who not only got a red card from a marshal right in front of me on the Queen K, but then hopped out of the penalty box at Hawi also right in front of me (you made up those 4 minutes I’m sure entirely legally) and latched immediately onto another set of wheels. Even less cool in a trisuit with both GB and YOUR NAME on it.
What about the wind? Well when you are riding into a headwind before Kawaihae (around 40 miles in) you know the road up to Hawi is going to be bad. There was a strong headwind this year rather than the cross we had in 2010, but firm enough that I remember thinking at Hawi that my early Queen K optimism of biking around 5.20 was not going to happen, and this was going to be more like a 5.40 day. Just before the turn at Hawi I saw Sonja on the descent, at around 10 minutes ahead of me she was biking well and I thought it unlikely I would catch her (I didn’t!) On the hill from Kawaihae back to the Queen K we were into a firm headwind again and this was a good taste of what to expect over the next couple of hours. I was actually still feeling quite good at this point, although having seen the race photos the salt all over my kit is not a good sign… here’s me quite early on and then on the road up to Hawi a short while later:
I have ridden the last 35 miles of the bike dozens of times. You tick off the landmarks: Mauna Lani, Waikoloa, the blue helicopters, the bit where the black goats hang out, Scenic Point, Donkey Crossing, Veterans Cemetery, the Airport, the Energy Lab, and the harbour. I know where the turnings are; I know where the hills are; where the lava turns from new and smooth to broken up and old; where the white rocks say “Dirty Sue” and where the green bushes point against you whatever the wind direction. And on race day it will always always be tough. Even when you prepare for it to be tough, you give yourself landmarks, and pointers, and mantras, you’ll still suffer here on race day. Why? Because it’s Kona. It’s hot, windy and humid; the gallons of water you’ve poured over your back have washed off half the suncream by now, your feet hurt, you’re sick of gels and you still have a really long way to go. But time passes, the miles ticked by and as I got closer to town I was falling off the pace a little but felt reasonably happy. With the wind and biking fairly conservatively I was at a little under 7hrs race time and thought a good run would bring me in under 10.30. Game on.
I ran out of T2 and boy, I didn’t feel good. Not just the usual heavy legs but that kind of feeling where you know something is wrong and you can’t put your finger on it. While I was thinking about this I was caught by a friend who I’d run with in Cozumel, and tried to stick with her for a bit. I did, for around 2 miles, but it was tough. We were probably only running around 4.45 k’s but it was all I could do to hang on, and considering this was around target marathon race pace and we were only 15mins in… not good. Any idea of not walking the aid stations went straight out of the window as I thought about what I could do to help me feel better. Maybe it was the heat… ok this is an easy one, handfuls of ice wherever you can put them: under my cap, in my fists, down my shorts, top, you name it. Salt? Well I’d taken 16 salt tabs on the bike but I had another 16 on me, so why not take a few more? Maybe it was calories… ok, have a gel, some Ironman Perform, maybe something solid even. I have been in this position in races before and you usually come good: often you just need some time for the body to rehydrate, or digest some food, sometimes you just need to cool down. And unfortunately sometimes whatever you throw all over yourself, it just doesn’t seem to work. A few miles in and already looking pale and interesting…
I started to see friends from the UK passing in the other direction including Tim, Matt and Stuart in quick succession who given how I was feeling weren’t as far ahead as I might have imagined. Around this time I also saw Tam who after a chat about how horrific I was feeling said I knew what I needed to do to get to the finish. Well yes, I did know. Just be tough, and keep on going. But I was also having a few doubts I could make myself do it and with time goals out of reach and mile splits being decimated by increasingly long walk breaks at aid stations (I was trying desperately not to walk any other time but I’m sure I didn’t stick to this to the end) this was a pretty low time.
The turnaround at Ali’i Drive was a key moment as once I got there I think I knew I would finish. It was a big relief to head back towards town and while I still had a long way to go I didn’t think I’d pull out once I got to the Queen K. My biggest concern at this point was that I was cold, in fact I was freezing, like actually shivering and shaking with cold. Now Kona is toasty warm, and in probably the hottest part of a very hot day this was odd and the first sign I had that things were really not ok. The next sign was severe pins and needles in my hands which progressed to persistent numbness as the run went on. Not promising. But my legs were still working, sort of, so on we went.
It’s worth mentioning here that I do feel it is a real privilege to race in Kona and I am always very aware of the history of the race and the athletes that have raced over the years on what is truly hallowed ground. Before the race I had said to myself that you cover every part of the course only once and when you are finding things difficult you should remember this and try and execute every short section of the course the absolute best you can on the day. And while I wasn’t executing in the traditional sense I know there are thousands of people who would give their all to be running down Ali’i Drive on race day regardless of any thoughts around race time, position and so on. So I was thinking of these people when I told myself there was no way I was walking off the course. Being carried off at times didn’t seem impossible. But I would walk to the finish if I had to.
The highlight of my run by far was turning the corner to Palani and seeing the helicopter hovering at the top. This could mean only one thing, and as I was doing a sort of shuffle/run up towards the aid station I saw Leanda sprinting down the hill with Caroline only seconds behind. Well I’ll be honest, I didn’t see that coming. So I stood and cheered, and then cheered for Caroline too even though she was shaking her head and I guessed the race had just got away from her. And as I turned the corner to the Queen K I saw Mirinda too and knew the women’s race must have been epic. And just as I was digesting this I also realised that I was starting to feel better: I had picked up the pace a little, I was still cold but the shaking was a little less, and I was fairly sure that no matter what happened I could finish from here.
My only really good section of the run was out towards the Energy Lab on the Queen K. The pace was unspectacular but I was at least moving consistently and I felt ok. As I neared the Energy Lab I started to see friends coming back to town, Rachel who was amazingly still in the race despite suffering from illness all week (that gave me another kick to get myself to the finish), Sam and Conan looking good, Tim a little ahead of Stuart and Matt who had Richard riding with them and a few others. At the turnaround in the Lab I figured I might as well pick up my special needs bag as I’d put a frozen bottle in there with some ice packs, which to my surprise was still frozen solid. As it turned out a frozen bottle was the last thing I wanted, but as a plan it was a good one and I was happy it worked.
While I didn’t have any goals on position or time by now I remember thinking that if I ran the last 7 miles at around 8min pace I would still break 11 hours. Given the previous 18 miles this was wildly optimistic and luckily I didn’t dwell on it for long. I saw Andrew on the Queen K and told him that I was doing ok, that I had stuck to the plan but that it just wasn’t my day. And as I made my way back along the Queen K and the sun started to set over Kona I thought to myself that the least I can do is enjoy this last hour of the race and appreciate for a moment the friends I have made through this journey and how regardless of results or performance it is the people that I really care about and I am proud to be out on the course or on the sidelines with every one of you. Might have been feeling a little emotional at this point. Judge yourself by the people around you. I do pretty well.
Things deteriorated a little in the last mile or two. I was very very cold. I couldn’t really feel my hands or feet. I was losing places left right and centre but I didn’t really care. I shuffled up Mark and Dave hill and got a little tearful with the wonderful people cheering and telling me I only had a mile to go and it was all downhill from the top of Palani (this isn’t true by the way, but you appreciate it at the time). I stumbled down Palani ignoring the last aid station. I thought yet again that running away from the finish in the last mile really sucks. And then finally… Ali’i Drive and the longest finish chute on the planet.
I got whisked into the medical tent pretty quickly – hitting a couple of their red flags of the freezing cold / no feeling in hands variety. The next couple of hours are a little fuzzy but after 2 litres of IV fluid, a number of standing up / sitting down tests as my heart rate was off the charts and allegedly a large amount of time spent repeating myself in a drunken-like manner (I’ll let Tamsin Lewis verify this one as I don’t remember) they let me out. It was getting late by this point and I had one mission left – having failed to do this in 2010 I was stubbornly determined to have my photo taken in the athlete area, so this is me at about 9pm when I’d finally made my escape from medical:
And before my legs swelled up the next day to look like this (thanks to Tim on the left for illustrating what an only slightly swollen post-Kona leg should look like):
Today I looked at the results for the first time. I finished in 11.16 and ran a 4.10 marathon. I’m still not sure why. But when I go back over the question of whether I really was tough enough, I remember this. It wasn’t pretty, but I got to the end. And I’ll see that finish line again.