I’m not sure I ever truly expected to race on the Big Island. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to. As an athlete and fan of the sport it was always the dream and I promised myself and the “Kona Gods” I would not step foot on the island unless I qualified to race. As a coach, I just can’t afford to be so selfish with my time to afford me the hours realistically required to get to Kona.
After getting close-ish to qualifying at Ironman South Africa in 2015, I looked ahead to 2016 – but alas I couldn’t see a clear pathway to Kona. I knew I wanted to go back to race South Africa again as I absolutely love the course and the support. Moreover, I knew I didn’t want to stop racing Ironman as I love keeping fit, healthy and setting big goals. However, considering I coach a team of athletes who all have very full racing calendars, not least the small matter of the work required to prepare an athlete for the Olympic Games, I didn’t know if racing South Africa properly would work.
After a conversation with a few of my senior athletes to get their buy in for me to race South Africa, I started to see a few cracks appear in the barriers to getting in shape for a good race.
The South Africa race report is here – in short the plan worked well, the race went well and I qualified for Kona!
So, on to Kona… Is it all it’s cracked up to be?
Put simple, YES!
Maybe all the videos you have seen of the legends of our sport doing battle out on the Queen K? Maybe just because it’s the “holy grail” of triathlon, which not everyone can get to and experience? What I have come away with now I have been there is that’s it’s also a very beautiful island – maybe even a little spiritual!
I don’t know about you but I get a little nervous about going on courses/trips etc where you have to share a room with someone you don’t know. They may snore or stay awake all hours of the night. When Paul (Burton) booked the accommodation for Kona and said that his mate Will (Newbery) would like to join us, those fears flashed though my head. I have known and coached Paul for a few years now and as with most athletes I coach for an extended period, we have become close friends. Will on the other hand, I’d never even met. So for this trip, the biggest race I’d ever done, traveling for two days to share a house with someone I didn’t know. I didn’t know if he’d be twitchy in race week, negative energy, a worrier or simply just clash of personalities.
All I can say on this matter is that I had nothing to fear – thank you gentlemen, for allowing me the most amazing race week, race day and (Will) post race fun… Top boys!!!
I like to go through a little pep talk with athletes as they enter a big arena to settle the nerves, keep their feet on the ground and tick off a couple of key race thoughts. It was so lovely to get a few of these messages from the guys in the team, in particular a pep talk form Gillian (Sanders) and the lovely thing about it from the other side… it just works. Just as I had said to her going into Rio, yes it’s the Olympics so let’s enjoy that, but it is still just swim, bike and run. Virtually parrot fashion (add in Kona) this is what she relayed to me. Thanks G!
My goals for Kona?
Quite simple – not to walk on the Queen K.
Coaching athletes to the Big Island you know the format – non-wetsuit sea swim, rolling/windy/hot bike and then a rolling and hot run. Also having athletes around you who have done the race gives you a bit more of a heads-up. So Will, Paul and I knew where we want to start the swim and headed out to OUR water soon after the pro women started – about 15 – 20mins prior to the male AG start. Treading water for 20mins and trying to protect your space is not the simplest of tasks, but I also made sure I took a look round at this iconic scene to soak it all up.
As the minutes tick by and get closer to 0-hour it starts to get a little interesting and you feel the tension rise. The paddle boarders are thrashing up and down in font of you, keeping us back from the imaginary start line, but then all of a sudden they disappear and everyone then starts to creep forward. In a moment you have a choice – concede the water you have just spent 20mins protecting or get your cross-country elbows out… we chose the latter! Then “BANG” the cannon sounds for the start of your day.
The swim for me was solid. There were a few flash points where I felt the swimmer beside tighten up and start to pull on me or push my legs down – as a coach and experienced athlete this is infuriating!
For the record, if you are swimming in open water and make contact with a fellow swimmer… just soften your stroke, don’t impede them, as that will impede your speed… just relax.
Despite that, on the whole it was was one of the smoothest swims I’ve done in triathlon. Everyone is moving in the same direction, the first buoy is 1800m away and there are lots of feet to get onto to! I got out in just under 61 minutes and was quite pleased given people always go slower in Kona than normal races.
T1: Uneventful, outside of trying to get my wet speedsuit up over my wet shoulders! New rules this year meant you could have your shoulders covered under your swim skin. In hindsight, I would have done that and not had it rolled down.
I felt great out to the turn around by the house we rented at 7k, then back through town at break neck speed and up onto the Queen K (Ka’ahumanu). Rocking out of town at 50–60kph just trying to stay as aero as possible and enjoying the free-speed! Pumping along the highway the road surface is great, tires are pumped, bike feels great, numbers are in check… let’s do this, its Kona baby!!!
Guess what… yes, I was in the thick of it at the busiest part of the field and there was a lot of drafting. Big groups coming past and initially I gave them a few industrial thoughts. But on reflection there just isn’t room for everyone and the marshalling was poor to non-existent (something needs to change as it’s becoming a bit silly).
Then I get the rumble or a little gurgling in the stomach, at first I thought it was just gas – but then realised it was actually something a little more serious (sorry reader!). Ok no problem I think, this is just the first “issue”, let’s deal with it.
Further up the road as we go through Waikaloa the headwind came in strong. “This is Kona, James, and if you don’t like wind, you shouldn’t have come”. I focus on smooth pedaling, staying relaxed and keeping to my 220w target (the speed has now dropped to 20-25kph, but as you know speed is irrelevant to cycling!). Turning up towards Hawi, I’m became quite desperate for the WC and told myself there will be portaloos up at the turnaround. Up at Hawi I make the iconic turn and see the portaloos soon after and jump in – gleefully! To be honest, once I had got over the stress of tying to peel my speedsuit down – as I sat there watching my bike split go down the pan (literally) – I just thought “dude this is Kona… chill & enjoy it”.
Back on the bike and a few km’s down the road having enjoyed the descent – I’m not sure what triggered it, maybe the sitting on the loo – but my left hip/ glute started to become painful (I know, a book of excuses!). I then had another WC stop! Back on the bike, again, but I just couldn’t get comfortable unless I sat up and the watts dropped to about 170-180.
Looking at my data later I was doing L40 & R60 on balance – L64 & R81 on torq – L16 & R22 on smoothness… not very economical! With a NP of 180w – well below target. This is the first Ironman I have done where I have had real physical problems – but having done enough of these now I know you have just got to do the best you can with whatever cards you are dealt.
That said, I now couldn’t wait to get off the bike! I normally enjoy the last 30-50k as people start to struggle with their early enthusiasm, however it was no longer a fun ride, and I was one of those struggling. I’d wanted to ride something in the low-5hr range, but stopped looking at my computer given the issues I’d had, as I rolled into T2 with a 5:33 split.
T2: Uneventful outside of the hip pain disappearing as soon as I got off… yay! But I was pleased for someone to take the bike off me.
I loved the first out and back along Ali’i Drive – the support is amazing, the volunteers are crazy and you are now at the business end of the race. Some are already walking and you just know that this is now going to be carnage! I keep repeating my only goal for the day “don’t walk on the Queen K” so I keep it in my pants as I know as well as anyone that the wheels can come off at any moment.
As we come back into town and turn up the steep hill on Palani Road at 16k, I decided to walk for a bit. I felt good but just want to take stock and prepare for the highway. In my head I also have the race briefing of my first half ironman in Forster-Tuncurry 1998 where the race briefing they said “even Greg Welsh walks up the hill”… I ran it and bonked at the top!!!
The Queen Ka’ahumanu – she is simply a long and cruel mistress. I should know better, but I started to “over-reach” mentally – “the Energy lab will be just over that rise.” I knew I had to keep my head strong now… I knew I had to keep the conversation positive and quick and I had the perfect seat in which to do this.
I see the back end of the pro men battling and then I see Daniela. I looked down the road and can’t see another athlete for miles… she has totally blown the girls away. What a race to witness and to be racing on the same road she was now tearing up – amazing!
It’s on the Queen K that I start to feel a tightness building in my left calf. Not sure why, maybe from the sub-optimal biking I was doing, but I always carry a couple of ibuprofen for this type of emergency, so popped a couple.
The Energy Lab was actually fun. It didn’t feel hot (I would love to do more work on heat acclimatization and sauna use). I know some found it very hot out there, however Paul and I, along with other Optima athletes racing in Cozumel a few weeks prior, didn’t feel the heat was a factor thanks, I believe, to sauna use in the build up.
Anyway, out of the Energy Lab at 30k and back up onto the Queen K – the “home straight” – although I felt strong I just couldn’t get into a rhythm as the calf was really starting to play up.
Finally after a long 10k, dropping back down Palani, I was feeling good and just really enjoyed the last few minutes. The finish chute was everything I had imagined and I crossed the line feeling the best I have ever felt post race. The euphoria perhaps? Or maybe it was the first race I’ve had where factors didn’t allow me to go too deep?! Given the experience I’d had, the times didn’t mean all that much to me, but for the record I ran 3:53 (my slowest ever!) and finished in 10:37. Not bad given how much went wrong!
It was great to have Paul, Will and other friends in the carnage that is the post race Ironman village and I owe a massive big fat thank you to Clio and Jo (Will’s sister) for their race week/day amazing support… top work girls.
I really do have to say a big massive thank you to the members of Optima Racing Team who helped me with the financial cost of getting over to Kona. And also to Claire for helping keep the team together and cover sessions while I was away.
Will I go to Kona again as an athlete? I don’t think so. But as a coach of a British athlete looking to take the mother of all crowns… possibly!
Kona Race Report by James Beckinsale.