Ironman Hawaii Race Report
Arriving in Kona was like walking into an Olympic regatta course for the first time; everything was new and exciting and there was this sense of anticipation in the air. This was where we were going to race. I can imagine that that feeling might decrease for those that race there year after year, but for a first-timer it was exhilarating. I had looked forward to racing there for years and now it was less than a week away.
Wanting to acclimatize to the heat and humidity, I arrived in Hawaii a week before the race and spent the first few days doing a few shortened training rides and runs over the course to get a feel for what it would be like on race day. It was going to be really hot! I felt this interesting balance of uncertainty and pre-race nerves gradually turning to excitement as I became more comfortable and familiar with the racecourse. I’ve been in big race situations before but so much of racing in Kona was still completely unknown to me that I never truly found the comfort level that I was looking for.
Race morning finally arrived and the week (and year) of preparation quickly faded into the background – it was finally time to race. The moments before an Ironman are so different from those final minutes before a big rowing race; it is just a completely different type of focus and nerves. A rowing race is only 6 minutes long and so needs a much more acute level of focus – if there are any small mistakes in that 6 minutes the repercussions can be disastrous. With Ironman, you have to prepare yourself for a very, very long day and all of the pain and discomfort that goes with that but the level of focus is much more broad. If you screw up the first few strokes of the swim, you have 9 hours to make up for it!
I waded into the water, taking stock of what the day would bring and truly appreciating just how amazing and unique the experience was going to be. It was great. I positioned myself in the middle of the long line of 2000 swimmers spreading out across the start line roughly 100m into the water but stayed 4 or 5 people back to try to seed myself properly. I didn’t want to try to sprint off the line with the top swimmers but also didn’t want to have to swim through the pack of slower swimmers. At least that was the idea.
At 7:00am the starting cannon went off and the melee began. In the other races that I’ve done, there is a good amount of jostling around and contact in the first few hundred meters of the swim but then it calms down and athletes find their space and rhythm. That was not the case in Hawaii. It was easily the most violent swim I’ve been a part of – I was getting punched and kicked and elbowed from all directions and my continued attempts to stay calm and as ‘zen’ as possible were quickly intermixed with somewhat desperate gasps for air. It was intense. I kept trying to find calmer waters but without completely pulling myself off of the most direct line to the buoys, I had little success. I thought I had positioned myself well but with hindsight it would have been better to try to avoid some of the more aggressive swimmers, start slightly off to the side, and have a much cleaner swim.
I came out of the water on the slow side of what I had expected – 1:03. Not great, but not terrible. I wasn’t thrilled when I saw the clock but I was relieved to be out of the water and excited to get on the bike, which has always been my strength. I knew the standard of cyclist would be higher in Kona but I have always been able to catch the majority of the faster swimmers on the bike and it is always fun and encouraging to fly past cyclists and work my way up through the pack.
Running through transition, I got tangled up with another athlete and his bike but didn’t think anything of it – I just wanted to get through transition as quickly as possible. I jumped on my bike and focused on settling into my targeted heart rate and perceived effort. So much of pacing a race as long as Ironman is convincing yourself that you are pacing it well and haven’t ‘burned too hot’ so I was intent on getting onto my pace and not over-doing it because I was excited to be racing in Hawaii.
I was right on my heart rate but kept getting passed by groups of cyclists. I just felt slow. It was frustrating and discouraging to be passed and to be passed by guys that I didn’t think should be passing me. I kept telling myself that I was right where I wanted to be and that they would pay for going too hard in the first half, but it took everything in me to stay positive.
At 62km into the bike a guy riding behind me said that he thought he could hear my rear brake rubbing against my wheel. I felt a wave of shock and fear crash over me as I reached behind me and released the caliper to give the brakes more room from the wheel – it felt like I unhitched a trailer. I couldn’t believe it. I had checked over my bike before checking it into transition so I can only assume that the brake got bumped when I got tangled with the other athlete in T1. I was relieved to have a reason for why I had been going so slowly but overwhelmingly annoyed that I had ridden the first 62km with my brakes on!
Before I go on, I just wanted to take a second to thank the other rider that told me that my brake was rubbing. Most wouldn’t have taken the time to do that and it really saved my day. I didn’t catch his name or race number so whoever you are – THANK YOU!
As soon as I released the brake my speed jumped and I started passing people. Over the course of the next 3 hours on the bike I passed nearly 400 riders. I felt strong. Despite the issue with my brake I felt like I paced it really well and was able to maintain my consistent push on the way back to Kona into the building headwind. Looking at other athletes that had similar splits for the final 120km of the ride to mine and assuming that I would have held similar speeds to them in the first 60km, I lost around 10 minutes.
Other than the swim, bike, and run, the unofficial fourth ‘event’ in the Ironman is hydrating/fueling. If you don’t prepare for and execute this aspect of the race well you will suffer dearly as the day drags on. I had planned out my hourly intake of fluid, calories, carbs, and sodium, and having stuck to that plan and paced my bike well, I started the run feeling great. I was still 6 hours into a long race in the Hawaiian sun and wind, but, relatively, I felt strong.
The first 15km of the run went really well. The run takes you along the coast on Ali’i Drive and is fairly flat. There are a lot of supporters and sponsor tents set up to encourage athletes and spray them down with much welcomed cold water. It didn’t get as hot as it has in the past but it was still in the 90s (mid 30s Celsius) and very humid. There were aid stations every mile and at each station I would dump two cups of ice down my race suit, drink 2-4 cups of water/Gatorade, and pour another few cups of cold water over my head or back all while running through the station.
It was hot.
Nearing that end of that 15km stretch I started to slow down a bit but was still holding decent splits on the big Palani hill up to the highway. There you leave the crowds of people cheering you on and you are all alone on the black asphalt highway surrounded by lava rock – 8 miles out to the turn around at the Natural Energy Lab and 8 miles back into the city. I was right on that edge of survival mode and knowing exactly what I needed to do to reach my ‘back up’ goal. Before the day began I had ever-changing goals for my finishing time if everything went perfectly and a steady goal of breaking 9:30 no matter what happened. I knew what I needed to hold to get under 9:30 and I stuck right on those splits.
My hamstrings started to cramp – first the left, and then the right – with about 12km to go but I was able to increase my fluid and salt intake at the aid stations to stave off any full, debilitating cramps. But I ran the final 12k with the thought or fear in the back of my mind that I would fully cramp up and not be able to stick to my splits. Luckily that didn’t happen and I was able to make it back onto the highway and to the top of Palani Drive before half running, half stumbling through the final mile down the steep hill and along Ali’i Drive to the finish line.
Running through the massive crowd and up the little ramp to the finish line was something that I’ll never forget. A goal achieved – 9:26. Knowing that it very easily could or should have been 9:15-9:18 is frustrating but it was a solid race for my first time there and I learned a lot. If I am able to do it again I know that I’ll be faster simply from having done it all before.