I would like to preface this race report by saying that the Ironman World Championship is everything I hoped it to be and more. Just being part of the history of this race was an incredible experience and despite finishing less than 72 hours ago, I am already jumping at the chance to take on the winds and lava fields again.
I flew out to Hawaii about a week before the race in order to acclimate a bit to the heat and humidity, and six hour time zone difference. After a 17 hour trip, I arrived in Kona around 8pm and settled into my room at the Kona Seaside Hotel. I didn’t realize how close the hotel was to the action until the following morning, when I met Mark Yost for a morning swim at Dig Me Beach. The area was quite crowded with athletes, families, and triathlon companies giving away free swag. I picked up a prototype pair of TYR goggles that I eventually used in the actual race. We were five days away from race day and Kona was already full of energy, which brings me to my next point. It’s really easy to get caught up in the energy and do too much in this week before the race. You see everyone else training and you try to convince yourself that you need to fit in one last bike or run, but it’s imperative that you stick to your plan and rest.
For the remainder of the week, I relaxed with my family and completed my final workouts with Mark. The rest of the athletes funneled in and it was amazing to see how international the field was. I know it’s the World Championships, but the two Ironman races I had previously done were clearly dominated by American entrants. This, on the other hand, truly felt like a World Championship event. Even Friday’s Bike Check-in was exciting. The media was everywhere and people lined the transition area with cameras, taking pictures of everyone’s top of the line gear.
The night before the race, I stuck with my staple of chicken and rice and got to bed around 8pm. I slept like a baby since I was still slightly on East Coast time and woke up at 4am. Again, I had my usually breakfast staple of a bagel with peanut butter and honey. I arrived at the transition area roughly two hours before the cannon went off – pumped up my tires, checked the brakes, and lubed my chain. After the pros went off at 6:30, everyone began lining up to enter the water. There was an eerie silence, which only added to the nerves. I spent these final minutes going over my race plan and making sure I was covered in sunscreen and Vaseline in high chafe areas.
Everyone began the death march into the water. Some athletes opted to head into the water and tread or 20 minutes. I decided to spend 10 minutes on the beach, surveying the area, and the final 10 minutes warming up and treading water on the start line. With two minutes left, the referees on the surfboards pushed the starting line back and I used this opportunity to push towards the front. I took a quick look under the crystal clear water and saw the thousands of legs dangling, kicking, almost in sync. I was on the front line, dead center, in the Ironman World Championship – possibly the most exciting moment of my life.
Without warning, the cannon went off. I lunged forward and was quickly surrounded by flailing arms and legs. Starting in the middle, I was in one of three or four groups that eventually converged before the half-way point of the swim. Whereas the pack split apart relatively early in the swim in my two previous Ironman races, I remained in the same, tight group of swimmers for nearly ¾ of the swim. Despite being extremely close together, everyone respected each other’s space and avoided any unneeded contact. At this stage, each athlete knows what’s at stake and there is no need to waste any energy fighting over real estate.
There was a decent swell that morning that ran perpendicular to the swim course. This made it quite easy to get off course, since the tide was constantly pushing you towards shore or out to sea. Fortunately, the water remained crystal clear and allowed to me to easily stay on the feet of some competitors. On the return leg, the sighting was a bit tough with the sun in my face, but I used King K Hotel as reference since it good landmark right next to transition. Overall, the swim was exciting but uneventful. I was a little slower than I wanted, but I felt like I had conserved some much needed energy for the bike and run.
(Swim time: 1:00)
After a quick transition on the Kailua Pier, I ran out of the Bike Out and mounted my bike without no problems. I rolled my arm coolers up into donuts during transition and used the opening mile to slide those onto my wrists and up my to my shoulder. The first few miles take you south of Kailua-Kona to a turnaround before heading back north toward the legendary Hawi halfway point. At Kona, you are basically at the mercy of the heat and wind. 95% of the bike is in the exposed lava fields and the Kona trade winds are unpredictable. The first 40 miles past the airport and before the climb to Hawi are rolling and generally manageable. I had a slight cross/tailwind for some of those miles, but do to inexperience at Kona, I didn’t feel like I took advantage of the cooler temps and wind. I kept around my desired power output, but probably should have pushed a bit harder to get up to Hawi before the winds changed. These initial miles lull you into a false sense of security, though.
At mile 40 you turn west a bit and start the climb to Hawi, Since you are going NW instead of straight North, the wind switched to a direct crosswind. The crosswinds neither hurt nor help you, but I definitely wasted a lot of energy and speed fighting the winds. There were several big gusts that scared the crap out of me, but overall you can lean into wind without a problem. At mile 50, the climb gets a bit steeper and the wind changed to a direct headwind of 10-15mph. These last 10 miles up to Hawi were hell. – I was now using all of my energy to fight the increasing wind and heat and maintain a paltry speed of 10mph. I was dumping watts like there was no tomorrow and I was going nowhere. Finally, however, the turnaround at Hawi was in sight and I pushed hard to get as much time going South and take advantage of the tailwind – and a tailwind there was. I was flying at this point, going roughly 40mph. I ran out of gears and coasted for several seconds at a time. I used this time to look at the other poor souls coming up in the other direction and the amazing landscape. The tailwind only lasted seven miles though and quickly turned into a crosswind again, which lasted the remainder of the ride. Back in the lava fields, things were not going too well on the nutrition front. I had spent a lot of energy battling the crosswinds and had not been taking in enough calories to compensate for this extra expenditure. I had hydrated plenty and peed four times already on the bike, but my legs were feeling pretty sapped at this point. Miles 70-90 were the toughest. As mid-day approached, the humidity was climbing and I could, for the first time, feel the heat literally blown off the lava rock and onto my body. The long, gradual climbs didn’t help either and at around mile 80, I was passed by someone and just didn’t have the mental capacity to realize that I had to fall back to seven bike lengths to avoid a drafting penalty. Being the World Championships, I was immediately carded by a referee on a motorcycle and told to report to the next penalty tent for a four-minute penalty. The next penalty tent was roughly 10 miles down the road and at this point in the race, I was actually excited to get off the bike and refuel for the four-minute penalty. I served my time and was off for the remaining 25 or so miles. I felt more energized for this last leg of the bike and caught back up to the people who had passed me while I was in the penalty tent. The last couple of miles on the Queen K Highway pass some of the run course, so I was able to see preview some of the punishment I was going to face later. As I headed back toward Kona, I increased my cadence and lowered my power output. The hammering was done and all I could do was prepare my legs for the run.
(Bike time: 5:02)
After another smooth transition, I headed up a short section of the famous Palani hill before heading back South on Ali’i drive. The first nine or so miles is an out and back section along Ali’i drive and was perhaps my favorite part of the whole run. The streets are packed with shouting spectators and the route gives you spectacular views of the ocean. I was feeling great and was averaging 7:10 minute miles for the first six miles. I wasn’t wearing a HR monitor, but I could tell my HR was relatively. I repeated the same ritual at each aid station – sponges, water, water, and sponges. I saw Chrissie Wellington and several other female pros coming in the other direction. I was still feeling great at mile 10 and was miraculously able to smile and wave to my family – an Ironman first! The smiles ended at mile 11, unfortunately. The course takes a turn for the worse as you climb up the steep Palani hill and North onto the Queen K Highway toward the Energy Lab. I love this race because it has so many famous landmarks and each one is just another obstacle standing between you and the finish line.
I took short strides up Palani, as to not elevate my HR too much. Many people were already walking and the afternoon heat was taking a toll on all of us. As I rounded the corner onto the Queen K, I saw Craig Alexander in the lead and on the home stretch. He was looking good and with mile to go was in certainly going to win. Back to my race, the Queen K was wreaking havoc. The absence of spectators and the desolate lava fields makes this stretch of the marathon a true hell-hole. You are at the sun’s and wind’s mercy as you make the subtle climb towards the Energy Lab. At mile 13 I got the worst cramp of my life. My lower right abdominal seized up and I was forced to run hunched over like Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Over the next 6 miles, I tried everything to resolve the issue: stretching, hydrating more, and taking plenty of salt pills. Nothing worked, as I continued to walk and limp towards the Energy Lab. Finally, as I rounded the corner heading into the Energy Lab, I bent over to touch my toes and pushed firmly into the abdominal cramp – and the pain subsided. It was a miracle. For most people, the Energy Lab marks a point in the race where things go from bad to worse. I, on the other hand, had already experienced some of the worst pain I have ever had in a race, and was now free to circle the Energy Lab and finish the race in relative comfort. I switched to Coke for energy and when the cramp re-emerged, I simply bent over and pushed firmly on my abdomen until it went away. I passed a few people coming out of the energy level and my spirits were high. I counted off the remaining aid stations and concentrated on using the sponges to cool down my head and arms. I grabbed a water and a coke at each aid station and marched on.
My pace increased dramatically for the last few miles and as I neared the turn to head back down Palani, I heard a spectator shout, “You’re at 9:18.” I was ecstatic! I had no idea what my overall time was, but I knew at this point that I had a mile and half left and a good chance at breaking 9:30. I ran my ass off down Palani, made the turn onto Kuakini, where the crowds were in full force. I was energized beyond belief. A few more blocks later, I made two more right turns and found myself on Ali’i Drive, hallowed ground for the Ironman World Championships. Take the atmosphere of a typical Ironman finish and multiply it by 10. I thought I was in the Tour de France, on the climb up to Alp d’Huez. The streets were five or six people deep and created a narrow corridor for each athlete to pass though. Slapping fives all around, I was soon ejected from the crowd and approached finishing chute. I was dizzied with excitement when I saw the finisher’s clock read 9:28:XX. The last few seconds were a daze and I actually passed my family without knowing it. Two volunteers escorted me to the “Post Race” festivities out back. The place looked like Normandy Beach on D-Day! Bodies were strewn about on the lawn and I quickly became one of the casualties. Before I laid down, however, I walked over to the tent to pick up my finisher’s gear. This is what I came for! I received a huge, beautiful medal that must of weighed about 2 pounds, a finisher’s tech shirt, and a simple (but awesome) hat. For once in my triathlon career I had not received a flimsy medal or an ugly-ass finisher’s shirt or hat. I thought to myself, “If this is what I have to do to get good swag, I’ll be coming back year after year!”
Total time: 9:28:57
Overall: 173 out of 1918
This was easily the most memorable race I have ever done. The volunteers were amazing and knew what they were doing, and the overall feel of the race week is unbeatable. Even though I’m not a pro, everyone made me feel like one.
For some, this race represents the pinnacle of triathlon. Certainly, for a long course guy like myself, that’s exactly what it was. I do feel a sense of relief and part of me wants to wash my hands of it and say, “Been there, done that.” There is no denying that the hours and time away from friends is immense. Huge sacrifices are made on everyone’s end. On the other hand, I feel like I’m just getting started. I’ve been doing triathlons for 2.5 years and have no competitive background in any of the sports. I have reached this level with pure determination (and maybe some genetics) and fantastic coaching, which brings me to my next topic.
I hired Mike Matney of Fitness Concepts as my coach in December of last year (2010). I had just finished my first Ironman in Louisville as a self-taught athlete. In less than a year, he helped me cut my time from a 10:29 in Louisville to a 9:55 in St. George, and now a 9:28 at the World Championships in Kona. Mike coached me to an Ironman PR on a Kona course that not known for PR course – quite the opposite. In the Olympic distance, he has helped me achieve the same thing. I was never close to the two-hour barrier in the Olympic distance, but his training has helped me break that barrier this year with a 1:57 at Rocketts Landing and a 1:58 at USAT Nationals. Although I am the one who put in the hours, without his guidance, I probably wouldn’t be writing this report today.
I also want to thank Andre from Kiwami tri gear and Leah from Muscle Milk (Cytosport) for hooking me up with their awesome products. I can’t say enough good things about the service and quality of their stuff.
Finally, and most importantly, I want to thank my family for being my support crew and attending nearly every triathlon I’ve been in. Cancer has struck my family this year, and knowing what they have endured to make it to these races and support me on a daily basis has helped me push on just that bit further. Thanks so much guys!
Awesome race report. Almost felt I was there...almost. Congratulations. If you haven't done so, you should think about joining the club's elite team.
This race report is the closest I will ever get to Kona. Congrats on an awesome race (and season!) Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for the kind words, guys. The truth of the matter is that I barely felt like I was racing - I was having that much fun. Anyhow, if you get a chance to race or spectate over there, I highly recommend it, but be warned - you'll want to keep going back.
I'm still amazed that you've only been doing this for less than 3 years and have no competitive background. That's just stunning.
And for this race... to have a penalty on the bike, to have cramped up enough on the run to have to stop twice, and still finish in 9:29. That hunched over Quasimodo walk and limp to the Energy Lab was probably at a faster pace than I run a standalone marathon. Really really impressive race.
i am going to sign up for my second ironman next year, and i would like to hear more about your nutrition plan. it sounds as though you didn't eat anything on the course. is that possible?
I had my breakfast and sports drink before the swim. On the bike I started off with a super concentrated bottle of Infinit and I supplemented that with water and gels at each aid station. I don't usually take in any solids during the race and stick with liquids and semi-solids. GI wise, it's just easier on the stomach.
On the run, I stuck strictly to liquids in the form of water and Performance drink for the early miles. Around the 20 mile mark, I switched to Coke, which is a perfect blend of calories and caffeine.
I try to get most of my calories in on the bike so that I don't have to worry about taking in too much on the run.
Hope that helps
that helps a lot. you didn't mention in your report if you've done any half-irons. if you have, did you follow the same nutrition regimen?
btw, that was a smokin' fast finish time, for Kona or anywhere else.
Yes, I've done a couple Half Ironmans and the nutrition is pretty much on par, except its slightly scaled down, of course. The only nutritional deviation is for Olympics when I only use a bottle of Infinit on the bike for fluids and calories and then nothing on the run (maybe some water if it's really hot).
Thanks for the kind words. I was certainly hoping for a 9:30 performance, but you never know what the day is going to bring in terms of how your body is going to deal with nutrition and the conditions.
Ben - killer race man, great story!
For anyone considering Fitness-Concepts, either for their coaching services (or the many other services they offer) remember that they are a partner of the club's. So before you pull the trigger on their services, head over to the partnership page on the site to review our exclusive club discounts:
Thanks for joining me on my final long bike. It was great to have you out there and definitely made those miles manageable. Let's get some Fall riding in together while the weather is still nice.