Last weekend, I had the privilege of racing Kona for a second time with the main goal of improving on last year. I left last year with a strong feeling that I could do a heck of a lot better and I set out at Ironman Texas this past May (report here) to attempt to re-qualify. I came in at 9:15 and 3rd in the 30-34 age group, securing one of the five slots: here we go, Kona 2.0!
Coming into Kona this year, I had a few advantages over last year: 1) I had been there and experienced it – you can read as much as you want about the course and conditions, but you never know exactly what it’ll be like until you’re there. I had a few surprises last year, including a flat tire, fueling issues, and probably most importantly – I underestimated the run course, partly for its hills and also for how you feel like you’re in no-mans land after 11 miles. 2) At least six months after Kona, I came to terms with the fact that I had an attitude problem at Kona during the run, and it may have stemmed from the mental energy I expended with my flat tire and the time leading up to it (the tire thumped for over 30 miles and I knew it was at great risk for blowing out that entire time – I burned some “mental matches” during this). My poor run split last year (relative to what I was capable of) was largely due to not having the mental attitude, “game,” or drive to keep pushing – I was not happy and I was in a very poor mental place to be in a race of such length. 3) I was heat/humidity acclimated. I had an altitude advantage last year since I came from Flagstaff’s 7,000ft elevation, but practically no heat training, as Flagstaff hits the low 80s for the high during the summer and the humidity is no more than 20%. This year, we moved to Austin, TX seven weeks before Kona and right away I was training in temps over 95 degrees with 50% humidity. As October rolled around, temps dropped to mid-to-high 80s with 50-60% humidity: practically perfect for Kona. Altitude training is known to have its advantages, but when it comes to Kona, I think the heat and humidity acclimation outweighs any kind of altitude advantage (By the way, if I were a top level pro with the means to do so, I’d train at elevation until three weeks before Kona, then train in Kona the last three weeks. The best of both worlds!). One disadvantage coming into this year: I had to move 1,000 miles during a pretty heavy period of training and missed out on at least a solid week of good training. Add to this the stress of moving and who knows how much of a toll it took.
I spent the vast majority of the day before the race by myself at our condo. I spent the day very slowly and casually preparing my bike and race bags, mentally rehearsing the race, and sitting around/staying off my feet. My coach, Bettina, arrived with her husband, Gus, and my lovely wife who couldn’t make it out until now due to her intense grad school schedule at the University of Texas. After that, we only went to bike check-in and the grocery store and followed it with dinner at the condo. This is my kind of pre-race day – low key, very little distraction, lots of visualization and energy to save up. I was fully prepared for the next morning by 8pm and I went to bed around 10pm.
I slept better than last year, only waking a couple of times and the sleep in between was deeper. Certainly no snooze button required though! I got up at 4am, had breakfast (race day nutrition) and was ready by 4:30. We got to the race site a little bit after 5am and I headed to body marking. This year they opted for temporary tattoo numbers rather than stamps and it certainly takes longer per person to apply them. I’m not sure why they wanted to go this route – the stamps were quick and I don’t recall them saying you couldn’t apply sunscreen until after the swim like they did this year (sunscreen apparently makes the temp tattoos come off). I got to have Ms Allie Nath apply my numbers – Allie is the NAU TriJacks president and an athlete I have coached before. It was awesome to have someone I know there when I was incredibly nervous! I then got weighed (157lbs) presumably for the purpose of post-race IV if required, hit up the bathroom (which was an ETERNITY of waiting) and finally walked to my spot. I quickly found a pump to borrow and quadruple checked my tires (since last year’s tire blowout situation would have been avoidable if I had done the same), loaded up my bottles, bento box, and saddle bag, and I was good to go. I then met up with Janee, Gus, and Bettina for some pre-race pics and so they could hopefully calm me the heck down. I don’t get very nervous for races anymore, but I was very nervous for this one, I think mainly due to last year’s experience.
I would estimate that I lined up about 1/3 of the way between the pier and the left-most end of the field. I started about three “rows” back and braced myself for the chaos, which was every bit as bad as last year. Any time you start a swim with 2,000 people, it’s bound to be violent for a bit, but this one is just awful. I had people all up in my business with elbows (a good one to the side of my head, for one), nails (got a great scratch shoulder-to-armpit), feet, and hands everywhere for a much longer duration of time than any other races I’ve done. You don’t choose where to go unless you were on the front line and can swim fast enough to stay there – you swim where the bodies around you force you to go. The remainder of the race calmed down but there was never long between contact. As the swim went on, I became increasingly nervous that I’d come out of the water in 1:1X, something I desperately wanted to avoid (I even told someone who asked back in May about my Kona goals, “I will quit the sport if I swim over 1:10,” about half-joking) because it sure felt like this swim was taking a long time. I finally popped out of the water at Dig Me Beach and my watch said 1:09:4X – Get this: my official race swim time was 1:09:59. Guess I have to stick with it!
Transition went smoothly, and I even had a familiar volunteer helping me, Paul, an Active Release Therapy guy who helped Kym Wilkens work out some kinks in my legs on Thursday. Out onto the bike, the first several miles on Kuakini Hwy are very congested and I looked forward to the Queen K where I could settle into a groove. When I got out there, I immediately realized how much of my surroundings I hadn’t taken in last year, probably due to my stress and paranoia about my front tire. This year, I looked around and I grinned. It’s THE Queen-freakin’-K, man! After not too long, a guy who I had just passed got my attention and it was my buddy “Tommy-Rivs” from Flagstaff! This guy qualified for Kona by winning his age group at the Hawaii 70.3 – his SECOND ever 70.3. Kona was his first Ironman and his fifth triathlon. Nuts. He has a few blog posts here. I couldn’t believe I already found my bearded self crossing paths with my bearded friend randomly, so early in the race. We briefly exchanged some words about how things were going and we each passed each other a few times throughout the race. It was really cool to have someone I knew there and it helped to lighten the mood of being at big scary Kona.
I recall there being some congestion and drafting going on occasionally last year, but this year seemed a heck of a lot worse. I don’t know if it has to do with swimming a few minutes faster or the relative lack of wind. As far as typical Kona goes, the gusting winds were not nearly as bad as they’ve been in the past, and I wonder if the crazy wind usually breaks up groups. Who knows, but I do know I was frustrated about not being able to find a rhythm because I kept coming upon groups of people (not always necessarily drafting) where either a few passes were being made at once, or they really were drafting, and I’d have to sit up, keep my space, and wait until it was clear to pass.
The average pace (which I’d been very conservative with) through half-way was 24mph, which was exciting and concerning at the same time – it indicated we may be facing a stiff headwind on the return trip. The climb to Hawi wasn’t bad at all and it was again exciting to see the pro race unfolding as we saw them descending on their way back to the Queen K. Upon my own return to the Queen K at roughly 80 miles, the groups and congestion had subsided enough that I was finally able to find a very good groove. This also happened to be when we were facing a constant head/crosswind, so maybe I was right about the wind breaking up the groups! I consistently passed person after person and I was enjoying myself way more than last year. I popped 100mg of caffeine around my 4hr mark and another 100mg at 4.5hrs and the added focus really seemed to help me bring it home strong. No thoughts like last year along the lines of, ‘holy crap, fifteen miles to go!? I just want to get off my friggin’ bike.’ My entire attitude was completely different and I was happy.
Before I knew it, I was hopping off my bike, handing it to a volunteer, and prancing…my way through transition after a bike split just a shade over 5hrs. Sweeet! 15 minutes faster than last year. There was some stiffness and awkwardness, but that’s to be expected after spending 5hrs in an aerodynamic position on a bicycle, I suppose! I was confident my running legs would come around quickly.
Bike time – 5:00:29 (22.4mph)
Overall place after bike – 585 of 2,134 = 27%
Number passed during bike – 525
The run is where the magic happens and where I worked the most on my mental prep for this race. My outlook and key word for this race was “gratitude.” I am grateful to have the talent and the ability to train and race at a level that gets me to the World Championship. I am grateful for the people I’ve met through the sport (including my wife!) and the incredible amount of support I receive along the way. It is this feeling of gratitude and thankfulness that I wanted to especially bring to this run. I also really, really wanted to run under 3 hours and I was confident I could do it. I adopted a mindset that I’m going to have to earn it, “it’s not going to run itself” (as in, it’s not going to happen if I’m out there running mindlessly), and if I want it, I have to take it.
My main concern was the hill up Palani around 11 miles and the stretch between there and roughly 16 miles where we’d enter the Energy Lab. That is where things went downhill (far from literally) for me last year. The 10 early miles on Ali’i Drive blow by and feel easy. There are tons of spectators and it’s relatively flat terrain. I kept my heart rate under control (around 150 for the first 4mi or so) and let it creep into the mid 150s as I approached 10 miles. This resulted in an average pace in the mid-6:40s to that point. I got to see Janee, Bettina, Gus, Allie, and her mom, Susan, twice during this stretch and that’s always a boost. Janee had two surprise signs for me – man, she’s awesome:
Briefly onto Kuakini Hwy we went, and then it was time for Palani hill. This hill felt like a mountain last year and I desperately wanted to walk. This is the part of my race where I realized things would be different. I was light and quick, and I felt good with no thoughts of walking. YES. I fixated on 6:51 pace because that’s the pace required to run exactly 3:00 for the marathon. My watch showed me overall average pace and the split for each mile. For awhile, I added up how many seconds total I was under goal pace. When I got tired of that, I reverted to my standard countdown from 300 when I was a quarter of the way through each mile (three steps for each second at 180 steps/min, 300 seconds for 3/4mi at 6:40 pace. Yes, I’m crazy). I went through half way in the 1:28s – so far, so good! I was becoming even more confident I’d come in under my 3hr mark. I focused on utilizing the very long gradual downhills (all of which had long gradual uphills to match, of course) by thinking “light,” “tall,” and simply knowing and acknowledging it was downhill. When I think like this, I feel my posture improve and I really do feel lighter and faster. My chest comes forward and I feel an upward pull on the front of my hips. This transfers into my legs and I feel as though it actually affects my form, but I can’t be certain it really does. I eventually caught up to Russ Brandt around 16mi, a triathlete in the 40-44 whom I know from Arizona. He was having a fantastic race and ended up setting a PR of 9:27. Again, nice to see a familiar face out there and exchange some encouraging words. Shortly after that was the turn into the Energy Lab, which is exciting because it means you get to turn around soon! The next mile (the 17th) is primarily gradual downhill toward the ocean and this ended up being the fastest mile of my race at 6:24. Holy moly! Another boost. After the turn-around, it’s flat for roughly a half mile and then uphill back to the Queen K (same stretch as 17th mile, but backwards). This mile was 7:03, putting my inbound + outbound Energy Lab miles at an average of 6:45 pace – still on goal! Back on the Queen K and headed the opposite direction really helped to confirm the feel that I was “headed for home.” With around 10k to go though, and being about 8.5 hours into the race, this is when things can really start to ache/nag/hurt/scream…only 5k to go sounds like a lot from that perspective. My crazy math antics turned into calculating what pace I’d need to average for the remaining X miles to come in under 3hrs. As each mile ticked by, it went from 7:15s, to 7:30s, and all the way up to 7:50s that I’d need to run by the time I got to the 24th mile. I had it, I knew it.
The last uphill before turning onto Palani seems to go on forever (I believe this is the “Iron War” mile) and was my slowest of the race at 7:20. Then there was the painful controlled fall down Palani followed by hundreds of spectators to bring me home strong.
I was so, so happy with how I had executed my race and especially at how I ran. This year, I was in control, rather than having the race control me. I was overjoyed to make the last turn onto Ali’i and have a successful redemption race on the Big Island behind me. I took in as much of that final stretch as I could and gave Janee a kiss when I saw her. That finish line experience is truly incredible and I will never forget it.
Run time – 2:58:33 (6:48/mi)
Overall place at finish – 117 of 2,134 = 5%
Number passed during run – 468
Number passed from swim to finish – 993
Age group place at finish – 24 of 177
Finish time – 9:15:40, 26:36 faster than 2012
71st overall amateur
19th American male
This race is dedicated to my wife, Janee – she has been absolutely monumental in getting me to this race from any facet you can think of. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without her and I’m almost positive I wouldn’t be at the World Championship without her help.
A huge thank you to all who have supported me, including friends, family, my coach, Bettina as well as the Racelab team, mom and dad, NAU TriJacks, Tim Fleisher, Allie and Susan Nath, Kym Wilkens, Reynolds Wheels, Jack and Adam’s Bicycles, RaceQuest Travel; and personal and team sponsors whose products I wouldn’t use if I didn’t believe in them, including First Endurance, Guayaki, Triple Sports, Rudy Project, Skins, Pactimo, Polar Bottle, and Doctor Hoy’s