For athletes like myself who have been marginal qualifiers – sellouts to Andrew Messick’s WTC global gravy train, collecting cheap backpacks with a cunningly calculated six-month lifespan and eventually the expensive golden ticket to the Big Dance – there’s a clear decision to make soon after qualifying for Kona: Am I going there to complete and soak up the experience, get the free caps/gels/bedspreads/curtains and just make sure I’m fit enough to get round that course in one piece with a smile on my face? Or, am I going to get myself in the best shape I can and go race properly – to see how you stack up against the best? Decision 1 – the mindset decision.
Then Decision 2 – the execution decision. Once you’ve done a few, there’s a clear honesty that’s needed about Ironman racing. You know in both your head and your heart when you’re fit and ready for the best performance you’re capable of – but more importantly you know (or should know) when it’s touch and go or when it’s definitely not on. Training tells you. There’s no bullshitting or bluffing this sport. It’s too hard. If you bullshit yourself and pretend things will be ok then you’ll be walking the marathon. Do this in Kona and there’s a chance people will be frying eggs off your back as you’re passed out face down on the Queen K. Or even Ali’i Drive if you don’t make it as far as Palani. So Decision 2 is in the weeks before the race, the honest look-at-yourself-in-the-mirror-question – what shape am I in, and what’s my race strategy to best reflect that?
Decision 1: Whilst I genuinely respect the ‘complete’ option and those that choose it this wasn’t one I spent more than a nanosecond on. I was there to race. I’ve always loved racing. As Sam Baxter (2x Kona AG podium friend) told me over an aptly named Honest Burger two weeks before the race: ‘Kona is the only race all year that matters. The only race where it’s everyone’s A Race’. If you can’t get up for racing this one, what exactly does excite you? Same day, same course, same conditions as the very best in the world. How good are you? Total honesty and exposure. Then James (Coach, The Boss) asked me at the start of the training block to come up with an ‘outcome’ goal – what performance are you dreaming of? Write it down. Stick it on the fridge. I studied the results from the last four years, and this is where it gets a bit daunting. The field is so deep. Marginal qualifiers like me, even with a good race, will be so far down the results page that only your coach, close mates and maybe your great aunt will spot your position and time as everyone else will be scared of picking up RSI clicking ‘next page’ repeatedly until they find you. So I concluded 50th in AG (my final race in 30-34) and 200th overall including pros would be a really solid Kona debut and an outcome to be proud of. That was on the fridge. I also had a little caveat – an absolute dream outcome was 25th AG.
Decision 2: This is where things got exciting. It’s a product of various things – a career change that’s driven a serious happiness and life balance improvement, continued great coaching, being illness and injury free all year – but I got myself into the shape of my life. On not all that much training volume – 14.5 hours per week average from June to October and 16 hours per week in the final 12 weeks. Newsflash… consistency & patience = performance and around September two things started happening – seeing numbers in training that I never had before, and sessions that had previously kicked me in the nuts (and then in the arse on my way down for good measure) were being ticked off with (relative) ease. So the look-at-yourself-in-the-mirror-question was easy. I smiled and knew I was going to Kona fully armed. James shared this confidence and for once in race week he wasn’t being pestered by my texts – and the one he sent me said simply ‘I’m excited to follow you – you have 100% nailed everything, now just go have fun’. Therein was the race strategy – go have fun, be sensible and make sure we get to see how fit I’d got. ‘Don’t be shit’.
Also, weirdly, going through this build I realised I was actually pleased I hadn’t qualified before. In the previous two years I wouldn’t have been ready. I would have been turning up expecting Madame Pele (the Hawaiian Fire Goddess who dictates everything on Kona) to kick my arse. But now I think she would have smiled at both my #journey to Kona and the work we did in respecting the race. Also I’d have struggled to handle the fanfare of the race week – the hilarious level of human physical perfection on show along Ali’i Drive and all the Ironman peacocking – without getting a bit intimidated. Whereas now I knew to smile and chuckle at it. It was the pasty, skinny guys to watch out for, after all.
So onto the Big Island itself… whilst I was there to race, I also knew that there was a chance it might be my one and only trip so as any Facebook friends of the Black Line London gang would have seen, we got royally stuck in to the festivities – caught up with friends, tasted all the local beers, did the Underpants Run (sorry about the photos!), Parade of Nations, the Ho’ala practice swim, swimming with turtles in Captain Cook bay. Lifelong memories with great friends – new and old – it’s what makes the sport what it is for me. In short the Aloha was all I hoped it would be.
The main thing I felt as race day approached was excitement. The only nervousness was around the heat (hottest summer ever, as it is every year?!), but I’d done what I could to prepare for that. So it was excitement. Compared to the binary outcome of either qualifying for Kona or not that I’ve had at my last five Ironmans it was a refreshing no-fail place to be. And it turns out no pressure plus good fitness is a powerful combo. Who knew?
Nico and I got on the front row early, at least 15 minutes before the cannon. Just before the start I looked around at the crowds on the pier and athletes massed along the start-line, with the sun rising over the mountain – the same scene I’d pictured for 3 years but now I had the best seat in the house – and just soaked it in. Then we saw the scuba cameramen 20 feet below us. I caught Nico’s eye and we just grinned. Who knew what was ahead but that moment was one for the polaroid upstairs. No filter.
The cannon went and the swim went exactly as I had trained for. Go at 98% for 300m before looking up, finding fast looking feet and sticking to them. Like glue. The Kona swim is long – between 4.0 and 4.1k. That’s why times are slow, the water is gorgeous and buoyant. I was swimming great. It felt hard enough on feet which told me I was on feet that were faster than me. And at no point did I tire. I hit the last 400m feeling like I had at halfway and got out to hear Mike Reilly say we were 59 minutes. I had really wanted to swim under an hour to be well ahead of the masses on the bike course and amongst proper riders. I ran out of T1 next to Charlie Pennington, who pisses excellence and I’d trained with in Lanzarote a few weeks before. OK, that swim was as good as it felt then. At this point 32nd in AG and 196th overall – perfect start.
With the first of two ‘start hard’ strategies nailed it was time for the second – hit the bike start hard to get to the top guys. After seeing there were so few people ahead of the group of about 50 we were in at the first turnaround at 8k I put my big boy pants on and nailed it back down the hill into town and up Palani onto the Queen K at 12k where the bike ride proper starts. It turned out I was next to a mate, Barry, who also likes to tap the pedals so we worked together for maybe 15 minutes to bridge up to the main front group of 20 or 30 guys. At this point he went to the front and my big efforts were done until the run so it was time to settle down to target power. The move had been worth it – just a small number of strong riders and most importantly everyone knew the drafting rules and behaved. Not the case 2-10 minutes behind us. The pace line started fragmenting as we approached the end of the Queen K at Kawaihae and I chose not to burn any matches to stick with the front moves. I took the 10k climb to Hawi from 85k easy to keep heart rate and temperature down and instead hit the return descent hard with those big boy pants back on again. Once back onto the Queen K it was time for business – 70k with the last 25k into a stiff headwind. I felt great, wasn’t bothered by the heat (no clouds – means the run will be HOT), was clearly well hydrated (!) and whilst many were now blowing up I picked my way through the field still feeling controlled. Rolling back into town was a hell of a buzz. I was even feeling good enough to attempt a full speed flying dismount, which I haven’t tried in Ironman since I had amusing double hamstring cramp doing it at Roth in 2012… but this time it was a full on crowd pleaser which got a good cheer and celebration when I pulled it off. Bike 4:57.
Having been 30th in AG at the top of the hill at Hawi, I’d made up 12 places in the second half to 18th at T2, 96th overall. Just some minor marathon-in-the-bowels-of-hell shaped business still ahead.
As I put my shoes on I was thinking that I hadn’t seen Charlie since the beginning of the ride – and at that moment he plonked himself down opposite. Turns out I’d spent almost the entire ride after the surge two minutes up on him and he got half of it back in the last hour’s headwind. He passed me like a train at mile 1. Training with Charlie had been a pleasure in Lanzarote and knowing we were both having solid days at that point was thrilling. I was racing for minor places and wished him well in his Pac-Man attempt to catch 1st in 35-39 AG (he’d go on to run a stunning 2:58 but come 2nd by 6 seconds).
The first 16k on Ali’I Drive was torturously hot (noises about 37-39C air temp), humid, no wind, no shade. My aim was to prioritise keeping cool, so I walked every single aid station – one every mile. Cold sponges down the back of my neck, cup of ice down the front of my suit so it rested on my chest, water, coke. Run. Repeat. Whilst I knew it was hot, I wasn’t really feeling it (as James has been telling us ‘it’s only hot if you let yourself believe it’s hot’), and I was trucking along well. I was getting overtaken by plenty but if there’s ever a time for your own pace this is it. Anyhow, the overtaking stopped after about 10k and I was genuinely surprised how far towards the front of the field I was at the out and back. I was ahead of everyone I knew other than Charlie and Barry, and also supporters were going ever so slightly mental at the sight of me (yes you, Luzelle, Geraldine, Steven Lord, Sharon Rowe and Paul Kaye!). I assumed they’d had too much sugar, caffeine or (most likely) margaritas – and whilst I was told I was 18th off the bike, I just processed that as ‘should be a decent buffer back to 50th then’. I’d averaged 4:48km pace to there – 3:22 marathon – and was feeling good. I walked up Palani at 16k as planned. Then the small matter of a 24k out and back along the hills of the Queen K – a desolate, evil, lonely dual carriageway – down into the Energy Lab and back again. After each roller you expect to see the solar panels that mark the start of the Energy Lab. Each one was a false dawn. It felt like forever until it finally arrived. I was at 5:00km pace now – running 4:45 pace between aid stations but taking longer at each one to keep cool and hydrated.
Disappointingly the Energy Lab, the most legendary element of the whole Kona course, wasn’t the furnace of the legend. Cloud cover came in – it was the easiest part of the whole run and again the out and back was motivating as it showed I was still towards the front – and nobody behind me other than a hard charging Martin Muldoon looked any better than I felt. The climb back out was made easier by knowing that Deenzy and Rich Melik and their toy bikes were waiting at the top with high-5s and photos, and I knew I was in far better shape than Deenzy and his famous Zombie Death March at the same point last year. I came out of the Energy Lab at 32k with 4:59km average pace for the run on my watch and I was fighting to keep it under 5s for a 3:30 run. Sam had claimed the last 10k back from the Energy Lab is almost free – you’re running for home. Frankly he’s a lying bastard because I felt every step. It was a fight to keep cool and keep trucking, motivated purely by the anticipation of hearing Paul Kaye’s shouts at Palani at 41k and then the famous finish along Ali’i. Everything hurt and the low-3:20 run I was hoping for was gone, but I knew I was on for a fairly grown up result and I was still fighting for that 3:30. Martin Muldoon got me at 36k – almost the identical distance as in South Africa – but this time there wasn’t a hope in hell of me picking it up to run with him to the finish.
Finally Palani came. Kayeman gave me loudspeaker love like only he can. I hope he knows the joy that went into his high 5. Then turning onto Ali’i and the final kilometre. First it was Steven Lord going bananas, then Sharon Rowe screaming her head off that kicked off some emotions I’d been holding back until knowing I was home and hosed. Having not had a whole barrel of laughs the previous hour I now didn’t want it to end. Ali’i Drive was sensational and I’m getting goosebumps just recalling the memory a week later. There was an unspoken rule amongst the 3 or 4 guys I was finishing near – we weren’t battling it out for top-5 podium Umekes so nobody raced the end – take your time, soak it up and we’ll follow each other down the chute in orderly time gaps. To. That. Finish. Line.
I did a really terrible jump at the line – the photo looks good, but the reality is I landed to cramps (only cramps all day!), on a downhill ramp, almost styled it out then stacked it forwards onto my face. I didn’t need it, but the medical team jumped forward and I was escorted off and treated like a prince – who was I to argue? Full service in the world champs – I approve.
I finished with a 3:31 run and 9:34 total. The swim and bike were controlled and exactly as I’d hoped. The run was maybe 10 minutes off plan but I was pleased how I managed the heat and it was certainly no explosion (1:43 first half, 1:48 second). So the performance felt solid – good execution.
At the finish everyone was moaning about how extreme the conditions had been. Wasn’t Kona always like that? I’d found it hot, but manageable. Apparently not – run times across the board were slow. So of all the ‘hottest days ever’ for once this was seemingly up there. I was less bothered about my marathon time on hearing that – and I guess I hadn’t been caught by that many.
Then I got my result. 23rd in AG and 123rd overall. Excuse me? Dream goal beaten. What. The. F***? It dawned on me that maybe it was a bit more than a solid day. It was both the result and performance of my life. It turns out I went from 18th to 25th at mile 7 but then made 2 places back again – to not lose places in the back half of the run in a race of that depth – that run wasn’t so bad after all.
Of less importance than the 23rd, but a nice surprise all the same was being 3rd British age grouper behind Charlie Pennington (9:01 – stud) and Mark Whittaker (9:33). Other than Charlie it wasn’t the strongest British AG field… but still utterly unexpected.
Coming into Kona I admitted to a couple of my closest friends and James that a little side-goal I had (albeit quite ego-driven) was wanting to surprise a few people. I wanted people to see that I was better than the guy that had found qualifying for this race so damn hard – maybe make people realise why I’ve been sticking at it rather than dusting off the golf clubs. It’s only sitting here now that I just realised, whilst I probably did do that, the only person I really wanted to show that to was actually myself.
Finally qualifying at South Africa was a relief mainly, but I didn’t find a deep satisfaction in it that maybe I was expecting to, because I knew I still hadn’t had the Ironman performance I was capable of. This time I have. It took 9 Ironmans but I finally did it. And I did it on the Big Island, first crack. See Paul – I told you you could do it. Good on you.
Kona is a great little place and an amazing race. I take it or leave it with much of what WTC does, but ultimately I come back because they put on the best, most competitive races in the world. And Kona tops the lot on both fronts. If you can qualify, you must try. It was absolutely worth the wait.
As ever some massive thanks:
Everyone at Black Line London and Optima Racing Team – two groups that bring very different, but highly awesome things to my sport and life.
To all the friends, new and old, I shared Kona with – but particular massive congrats to 4 friends for inspirational performances in their own races – Charlie, Jane, Lucy and Susie. Enjoy your fruit bowls.
Nico – as ever bru, it’s been a pleasure flying with you. Thanks for putting up with me.
James – thanks for helping remove the handbrake properly this time. Time to put the pedal to the metal at Austria. Also thanks for putting up with me!
Kona – see you again some time. Mahalo.
Race report by Paul Burton