The race in Kona takes place at the epicenter of this endurance sport. In 1978, a couple in Honolulu dreamed up of the idea to combine three of the toughest races in Hawaii into one event: the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, 112 miles of the Around-O’ahu Bike Race and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon. Call it an “Ironman” and see who would be crazy enough to show up…. On February 18, 1978, 15 endurance enthusiasts answered the call and competed in this first race held in Waikiki. In 1981, the course moved to the barren lava fields of Kailua-Kona. Over the years, this sport has grown to include hundreds of thousands of triathletes participating in Ironman races. With global expansion, triathletes flock to areas all over the world in order to test their will and capacity to suffer with dreams of qualifying for the big dance in Kona.
With a storied history of epic battles between the top long distance men and women triathletes in the world, the Ironman World Championship race in Kona has become iconic. It has been labeled the “hardest single day in sport.” Having a rate of only 1% of all triathletes qualifying, just getting in seems to be the biggest challenge. Entry into Kona is like winning the golden ticket to the Willy Wonka factory, and as such, simple survival is a measure of success. However, many attest that the difficulty in qualifying is not the greatest challenge, but rather the actual course. Kona is regarded as one of the toughest ironman races on the triathlon circuit.
When overviewing the course on paper, it doesn’t look that imposing: a warm salt water swim in a protected bay, less bike and run elevation change/grade incline than 2 of the 3 Ironman races I’ve completed thus far, and as true to all other Ironman races, the same distance of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and marathon run to finish. So what’s the catch? Madame Pele, the fire goddess of lightning, wind and volcanoes, brings something truly unique to this event - the "ho’omumuku" crosswinds of 45 mph, 95-degree plus temperatures with high humidity, and a scorching sun.
Travel and first impressions
I arrived into Kona airport with a sense of comfort and ease, very different from other races where I felt somewhat of a fish out of water and as an outsider looking in. I’ve been hesitant to return to the Hawaii as my last trip here 7 years ago was challenging, with a colicky 9 month old and excitable 4 year old in tow. Needless to say, there were not enough Mai Tai’s, Kona Red Ale’s, and Lava Flow’s for my 210 lb frame flabbiness to drown out the nighttime crying and daytime behavior meltdowns. This current trip was the polar opposite and found myself and my family in a much better place overall. Also, I was fortunate to travel along with my friend and triathlon mentor, Mike, otherwise known as the Diesel for his biking prowess and ability to crank enormous power at low cadence.
Driving directly from the airport to the race venue with the Diesel to register, the energy was electric and penetrated every fiber of my being upon arriving to Kailua town. Athlete body types dominated the scene, and in fact, most of the fittest appearing specimens weren’t even racing. Professionals such as Jan Frodeno, Sebastian Kienle, Daniela Ryf, and Heather Jackson casually walked by and in an arm’s length approachable fashion. This truly separates triathlon from most professional sports. Also, at the same time, I overheard some athletes questioning whether or not they would even finish the race in the allotted time. How could they have punched the golden ticket and not be in position to finish??? With a lottery available for Kona entry without qualification in addition to age group distribution of qualifying spots favoring the extremes of age, there would be many athletes on race day just trying to make the cutoff time of 16 hours. In contrast to the 70.3 world championship race where most athletes were there to compete and potentially place high in their respective age group with overall average athlete on the more competitive side, the journey to and during the Kona race would be from many different paths adding some diversity to the experience. Also, a sense of relief set in that I wouldn’t at least be the LAST one crossing the finish, no matter how bad the day unfolded…
At the registration desk, there was a volunteer personally assigned to me to walk through the process (transition as well) which is in stark contrast to the assembly lines of most races with 2000 + athletes. I found out during registration that I was randomly selected to receive the “golden ticket” - a new pair of Oakley Bluetooth integrated sunglasses retailing for $800 ish…. and I thought just getting here just that!
Walking down Ali’I drive invoked the rich history of this event with giant sized portraits of former champions and flags of more than 80 countries aligning the walkway. It was humbling to think that within several days, I’d be running (hopefully, but maybe walking) down this same hallowed road just as triathlon’s greatest to the finish. Though the United States heralds the most athletes numbers totaling 741 for the 2017 race, chatter in multiple unrecognizable languages filled the streets and the international draw was evident.
Training in Kona
After completing my first practice bike ride and run on the Kona course, I quickly realized I wasn’t in Colorado anymore. It is the extreme conditions of Kona, and not necessarily the course design, that brings the extra level of challenge and misfortune for many. In the weeks preparing for this race, I would run wearing 3-4 wool/heavy layers of clothing, do bike trainer and treadmill run workouts next to a full blast fireplace and humidifier, and spend extra time post workout in steam showers. However, the
Kona wind, heat, and humidity directly in the face felt more austere and oppressive than ever in real time.
Interestingly, the pros were training on the course as well. About every 10 minutes or so while on a practice run or bike, an endurance superhuman would fly by at relative ease. My best A-game was maybe close to their worst D-game, but I quickly reassured myself that this sport is only my hobby and I fortunately won’t be measured up against these beasts of nature.
For charity and to let off some taper steam in a short jaunt, I joined the Diesel and Kelly Phuah in the annual Kona underpants run. Yes, this event was run by hundreds of folks down Ali’I drive in nothing but their skivvies. Denise was a little skeptical about this after pulling up the website with the main picture showing the ladies of Wattie Ink in true form. In reality, participants came in many different shapes and sizes with the only commonality of hiding very little and having enormous fun. It felt more like a Fat Tuesday mascarade march down St Charles Street in New Orleans than a triathlon event in Kona. By consensus agreement, pictures of the three of us will not be displayed for public viewing ;)
I’m not sure why, but I packed morning clothes to take with me for use pre-race. At 4:45 am, ambient temperature was in the mid 70 degrees and there was no need to warm up to the heat beat down that would soon follow. The athlete body marking, check in process including weighing in, and transition preparation was methodically orchestrated and volunteers outnumbered the athletes 2 to 1. Outside access to this was completely restricted, so once you’re in, there’s no turning back! Tension filled the air as the age group athletes waited for the pro’s to start. An eruption of cheers followed the first cannon, and the pro men were off!
All 1,800 plus age group men would start the swim at the same time from an imaginary line about a hundred feet or so into the bay near the pier. Rolling waves were present but nothing like I had to face in the Italy 70.3 race in Pescara. The men’s age group started about 15 minutes after the pros. In the water line up prior to the start, everyone was jockeying for position and some such as myself, clinging to the pier in order to try and save energy. The area was like a shaken up bottle of
coke waiting to be unleashed by the pop of the cannon. Upon the fire of the cannon, it was thrashing, kicking, arms, legs, and human body parts flying around in a washing machine madness for the first several hundred yards until the swimmers found better position. I stayed near the inside buoy line without much still water in sight and tried to find fast feet to keep behind. This rhythm fell apart in the second half as many were starting to slow, but I kept an easy to moderate pace knowing it would be a long day ahead. Upon exiting the water and stepping up to the pier, it was comforting to feel great with the first race leg completed.
As I was in the middle of the swim group, the transition tent was packed to the rim, overflowing with stressed athletes fighting for any chair or open ground space. Finding a small ground section in the back, I frantically dried my feet, put on my socks, then proceeded to step in a pool of water prior to putting on my bike shoes. Oh well, at least feet will start out cool.
Upon dialing up the shoe tension while riding out of transition, the crowd cheers echoed the streets and it was comforting see my family among them. After riding the first short section in Kailua town, the bulk of the riding would occur on the moon-like deserted landscape of the queen K up to Hawi and then back. Winds were moderate and slightly more than my practice rides but manageable. The low bent over aero position on the bike would be necessary for the majority of this ride to minimize wind resistance and maximize speed. Extended periods of time in the aero position hasn’t been my strong suit, not to mention it has been nearly three weeks since my last ride in aero due to using a transport company to ship my bike here for the race. On several sections, a hard cross or head-wind would nearly stop the bike in its tracks, the norm for racing on the Big Island. Around mile 80, the Diesel came barreling by in good form, and I was happy to see him looking strong. This positive exchange gave me a nice pick up to continue my pacing plan to the end with every several miles working in a short break from the aero position. The temperatures on the road were rising and I missed the water/nutrition bottle grab on the last aid station 10 miles out while trying to buzz through too quickly. I entered into the run transition around my targeted goal, though water and nutrition deficient with no readily available supply there.
As the case before, the transition area was packed to the rim. Prior to placing on my running shoes, I managed to find the same pool of water, drenching my socks. Oh well, at least feet will start out cool.
If able to execute this segment as planned, I would be in position to finish below a 10 hour overall time. My swim and bike had been relatively on target with great preparation for this race from my coach Tim Crowley. When running onto the course out of transition, my legs felt fresh and up to the challenge. This was a great start and I felt pumped! I also drew energy from the crowds on Ali-I drive and especially when seeing Denise, the boys, Mom, and Rich on the course cheering me on and “you’re at a sub 10 hour finish pace.” However this was short lived as my mistake of under-fueling the last segment of the bike was starting to become evident near the Ali’I turn around at mile 6. I began to get stomach sickness, headache, and feeling of near collapse. My heart rate began to climb to sub-threshold levels and I felt terrible. I backed off the pace, walked the aid stations every mile and fueled up heavily, drenching myself with water. I got a quick burst of energy seeing my family again on the return, but another mile down the road, the sickness and terrible feeling was back full force. Upon closing in toward the queen K around mile 10, I felt fairly cooked with heat exhaustion. I then knew I was at risk of imploding if trying to rebound and regain my average goal run pace. On these parts of the run, my watch was registering around a 104-108 degree temperature upon later review, which correlated to how tough I felt these sections were. I recalled my coach’s first Kona experience racing this course, pushing beyond the limit and not making it beyond the Energy Lab at mile 18. You just need to make it to the next aid station, I told myself and kept on.
The aid stations felt like an oasis of pleasure in the desert - stocked with ice-cold soaked sponges, Gatorade, red bull, coke, food, and ice water. Despair immediately set in once leaving the aid station but the thought of what awaited me at the next aid station kept the feet moving through the oppressive conditions. Nearing the Energy Lab around mile 16, I came upon an aid station with red sponges the size of something you would wash an 18 wheeler with. An exclamation of pure ecstasy was bellowed by many, including myself, when coming upon with these ice-cold water soaked gems! Thank you Cliff Bar!!! I am now a lifetime supporter. In my mind, I imagined there was another unclaimed red cliff bar sponge lurking in an aid station ahead or reminiscing how cold I was while in a snow covered tent in the high camp of Aconcagua for days. Any thought of being cold to detract from the present heat was forced into my consciousness. I was also mindful of all the sacrifices my family, especially Denise, has made for supporting me and my training to get here, and the fortune of health and work security to make it a possibility. These positive thoughts, among many others, motivated me to try and finish at my best for that day.
Further, this day might be the only opportunity to experience this race in
Kona, and thus I wanted to make the most of it. Upon mile 22, the temperature began to cool, the mind began to sharpen, and I felt the spring return to my legs. I started chatting with a Canadian named Matt who just completed a qualifying Ironman 2 months ago at nearly an hour and 20 minutes faster than his projected finish today. He also attested to the crushing conditions of this course, on par with the prior years he’s done it. This was his third race at Kona and he talked with passion about his first race here and elaborated on the unique and spectacular last ¼ of a mile down Ali’I drive to the finish; an experience that hasn’t been replicated for him since.
I was finally upon this last stretch of Ali’I drive toward the finish; the same path traveled by the greatest in this sport. It was more than I had ever dreamed or imagined it would be. Spectators overflowing with energy along the streets and with deafening cheer. I was filled with overwhelming emotion upon crossing the finish; not only completing my pinnacle race of the year, but in reaching the end of a journey I set out to accomplish when starting this sport 3 years ago when I made a personal commitment to regain fitness and health and reclaim my life.
Walking out of the finish area, a feeling of melancholy set in, almost a sense of generalized sadness. My Kona experience was over and no race following would ever be the same.