Kona isn’t just the race itself, but the whole show – the experience of all that’s good and ridiculous about this sport – and most importantly sharing it all with friends. If you make it just about the race then given the hostility of the conditions there’s every chance you’ll leave the island disappointed – and for our little gang it was always about more than that. Sharing the whole thing with James and Will was awesome. They are both long term triathletes and coaches who’ve helped other people fulfil their dreams by qualifying for Kona and were grinning from ear-to-ear all week. We soaked up all that was on offer and coffeed, brunched, beered, pizzaed, underpants-runned and Dig-Me-Beached our way through the week. Throw Clio and Jo into the mix as support crew extraordinaire and a load of friends both racing and supporting means we leave with great memories. In particular, I’ll remember the few minutes before the race start, the three of us bobbing up and down on the start line with a combination of increasing tension and nerves, knowing there’s no turning back as more and more people start jostling for space, but at the same time catching each other’s eyes and seeing the excitement (it probably helps that I know first-hand that the three of us can each give as good as we get when it comes to swim start aggression!).
But this is a race report, not a holiday album, so onto the race.
The way my season had panned out, Kona would be my third Ironman in 15 weeks. It doesn’t take a genius to suggest that might not be ideal preparation – and in accepting my slot at Zurich I signed away any right to grumble if I wasn’t firing on all cylinders for Kona itself. Once back training my mojo was nowhere to be seen and every session was a struggle. But then slowly the more training I chewed my way through, the better I felt. My thoughts evolved to maybe it not being a disaster (a good race at Thames Turbo sprint helped), and then as the race approached I started nailing some big sessions and felt I might be going with a chance of racing well. My swim was a little off where I was last year, my biking was feeling excellent, and my running, which unsurprisingly took the longest to come around, was pretty good.
I was cautious of setting goals given the hectic build up. Last year (in oppressive conditions, even for Kona) I was 23rd in M30-34, 123rd overall and 3rd British amateur – better than I dreamed at the time. Human nature is to make forward progress, so I was eyeing up top-100 on a good day. But really, given the build-up, I just wanted to race hard, see what hand I was dealt and be prepared to suffer. I’ve been humbled by Ironman enough in the past to know that my run of good races will end at some point – and taking the aggressive ‘race hard’ approach meant there’s always risk of an explosion, especially in Kona.
I ended up having a pretty good day – not a great day but certainly not bad – and the splits, boringly, were nigh on identical, finishing in 9:32 to last year’s 9:34. But despite the numbers, it was a very different race day experience.
The main difference was that my swim was crap compared to 2015. It may have been 45 seconds faster at 59-dead, but it turns out it was a combination of better conditions and much shorter, as I came out 70th in AG (vs. 32nd in 2015) and way back at 310th male age grouper vs. 125th last year. I can’t argue with the swim itself – I got a good start, was tactically sound, felt fine and came out happy – but the outcome fairly reflected my swim form and that I’m just not holding the water as well as last year. In most races this would have little impact on your race but in Kona being a couple of minutes off form means a LOT of people to work through on the bike. 200, as it happened.
The bike was one of two halves. It was by far the least enjoyable 2.5 hours I’ve ever had on a bike followed by almost certainly the most enjoyable.
Last year my good swim and hard bike start meant I was (surprisingly) amongst a small number at the front of the race – it was both well refereed and entirely respectful racing. It was awesome. Sadly it was a different world starting the bike with an additional 200 testosterone fuelled guys in front of me. It was very much not awesome. I started hard again to try and get out into clear road and was feeling great, but those efforts were in vain as there were just too many people – once out onto the Queen K, the only options to stay legal were to ride WAY above target power, firmly into the red zone and dragging a train behind you (which would almost certainly end with a long walk into the Energy Lab sunset), or the one I took – pushing on where there was space and at other times sitting off the back shaking your head at the antics of the groups around you. It’s a dangerous combination of there being no referees (which is inexcusable, Mr Messick – we know humans will cheat given a sniff of an opportunity and Ironman has enough dosh to pay for plenty more out there), about 20% of the field cheating at every opportunity, about another 30% taking a reluctant ‘if you can’t beat them, join them by riding at 5-8m’ approach and then the rest of us having our World Championship experience tainted. At about 40k I was joined by Andy Greenleaf and we rode together for half an hour or so until the field got smashed in the face by a block headwind for maybe an hour from Waikoloa. Andy pushed on at this point, engaging Stud Mode and blasting past the groups, but I held back – hopeful that the headwind would blow the groups to pieces and the race proper could start a bit later.
Thankfully this happened exactly as hoped… those that had been riding a little too excitably disappeared backwards on the climb to Hawi (unsurprisingly it was typically the same people who’d been enthusiastically hanging onto wheels earlier) and it was finally just strong riders for company. I’d made it from 70th to 41st in age group by the turn at 96k and then put my foot down as the race cleared up. My power in the second half was only a bit higher than last year, but I’ve worked hard on a more aggressive bike position and it paid off. I felt fantastic, it was fun to cut through the field and I don’t think I was overtaken by a single person in the final 80k. When I passed first Brian Fogarty, then later Reece Barclay, both of whom I expected to be amongst the top British amateurs behind Andy, and then finally (somewhat surprisingly) Andy himself, the grumpiness of the first half was long gone and I thought maybe this could be my day after all. As ever, the final hour was into a stiff headwind which was fine by me as I was still able to put out good power and knew how miserable it would be for anyone that was struggling, and I rolled into T2 with the same 4:57 bike split as last year. In slower conditions this was a better ride – despite starting much further back I’d ridden up to the same place (17th in AG v 18th last year, and about 100th overall including pros) without over exerting myself. It felt like a victory for patience and aerodynamics.
I wanted to run under 3:20 (3:14 at Austria and 3:20 at Switzerland), which would have been bang on the top-100 goal, and the conditions being cooler were certainly suitable for it, but when I got out on Ali’i Drive and took stock of how I was doing, that pace just felt a little risky. I don’t think it was laziness or giving in to evil voices, but I was just acutely aware of how deep the struggle had been out in the furnace that was Queen K last year, in particular the 12k back from the Energy Lab. So I held back, preferring to be a hero in the last hour not the first. At this point Andy came cruising past at sub-3hr marathon pace making things look absurdly easy. Mentally the run was alright – mainly because at about 3k I caught Kristian, a Danish guy (turns out he was leading the 18-24 age group at the time) who was running a nice tempo and with exactly the same cadence as me – we ended up running 30k together.
We chatted a bit but mostly just ran on each other’s shoulder and worked together. Just like last year, running back along Ali’i Drive after the turn-around was awesome – feeling good (enough) and seeing we were up towards the sharp end. How screwed most people looked behind us, heading out to where we’d come from, was comforting (mean of me, I know), as was catching the eyes of friends for a smile or high five amongst a sea of strangers in pain. Last year being towards the front caught me by surprise but this time I expected it and believed I belonged there. As we approached Palani at 16k in town, totally coincidentally Kristian’s family were screaming their heads off in exactly the same spot that Jo and Clio were doing the same – a fun distraction before the real business of the day – the Queen K. After 8 hours of racing it was all beginning to bite when we got up there – not wildly hot, but hot enough, and the legs not quite feeling magic. I challenge anyone’s head and legs to feel magic when running along a motorway with no shade and rolling hills at that point in an Ironman. From then on it was just a case of trying to hold it together at or just under 5 minute KMs to go under 3:30 for the run and under 9:30 overall.
We kept a good rhythm to the Energy Lab, like last year I enjoyed and felt good in the Energy Lab itself but the familiar feeling of empty legs on the way back meant it was all a bit of a grind – Kristian pushed on and the loneliness and mental games kicked in – the hills of the Queen K turned into mountains, most of all the long drag up Mark & Dave Hill at 39k, and hopes of running under 3:30 slipped through my fingers (again). This wasn’t the hero-like last hour I’d been planning earlier. The only fun punctuating that last hour was shouting and waving at friends heading the other way and the smug knowledge that your pain would be over sooner than theirs. The better conditions meant plenty of people were still running well and I got overtaken by more in the second half this time, despite running the same pace. As I dropped down for the last 2k in town I managed to pick the pace up but it wasn’t quite enough, finishing the run in a shade over 3:30, via an annoying need to boot it down the finish chute given 3 guys were catching me. I managed to stay in front of them, but at the expense of stumbling across the line like a dork.
It was a race and result of mixed emotions. Seeing the 9:32 on the finish line I was delighted to beat last year’s time and knew that I’d kept my shit together as best I could. But then seeing my result in the finish area of 178th overall and 40th in AG I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed.
Sitting back 3 weeks on those feelings remain. I’m proud that for the 5th Ironman in a row I can give myself 10 out of 10 for execution and getting to the line as fast as possible on the day. I’m also chuffed to finish 4th British age grouper. But I can’t shake the lingering disappointment at not being able to put the run I’m capable of on top of a competitive bike. Unlike last year, the build-up was far from perfect – two Ironmans in the summer combined with other life stresses meant my body gave me the race I deserved and probably expected. I now know for sure that the result last year was earned from early qualification and 4 months’ perfect prep leading into the race.
However, to be sat here at the end of the season not completely happy after 9:05 at Austria and 9:32 at Kona is pretty cool for a fat golfer that was struggling to piece things together for a few years and reflects the progress we’ve made under James’ guidance. If they’re the ‘bad’ results, we’re in a good place. There are a load of highlights this year – having a crack at a 3:10 run for a sub-9 at Austria (and it almost sticking), hanging tough to qualify at Switzerland 4 weeks later, giving it a proper tonk on the bike at Kona and winning Thames Turbo sprint twice. I’ll take that. The lowlight was kissing tarmac after doing a somersault on a slippery roundabout in a 25 mile time trial 2 weeks before Kona – not advisable, but I got up unscathed other than a bruised ego.
Given the fun I’m having, how much I love training with the people around me and that I’ve found a good balance between the demands of both sport and non-sport life, I’m going to keep going with the Ironman nonsense. I still want a sub-9 hour Ironman and a Kona result to tell the grandkids about. Kona is a race that suits my strengths, so I’m convinced I’ve got that in my locker. Whether those 2 things are achievable in the same year is debatable given my experience in the past 2 years – so it’s back to the drawing board and time to get planning once I’ve recovered from a hectic year.
Unfortunately I had to get back home for work ASAP after the race, so I missed the afterparty. But it was great sharing the post-race hours with friends – seeing Andy, Ali, Lucy and World Champ Jane delighted with podium positions, and trading war stories with everyone else – most of all Will and James. They maybe didn’t quite have the races they hoped for, but it all felt inconsequential in the context of a memorable week. It’s a great sport with amazing people. As I started this report with – that’s what it was all about, and I loved it.