Someone once described to me that the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii was like “Disneyland for triathletes”! I couldn’t agree more – you get to wander around in a town full of the world’s best professional and age-group triathletes, and then compete in the world’s toughest one-day endurance race. This year was even more special as it was the 40th anniversary of the first Hawaiian Ironman and there were a lot of events around that theme.
It’s such an amazing experience to go to Kona and I feel privileged to have gone back-to-back on the Big Island. I arrived in town a bit earlier this year – ten days prior to the race – in order to acclimatise to the heat. It was a different feeling this year – everything was so familiar and it felt like I was there only a few months before, rather than a whole year. I knew the course, knew the heat, could find my way around town, remembered where everything was in the supermarket, and even remembered how to drive on the right-hand side!
Preparations for the race went well. It started off with the Ho’ala practice swim on the Saturday before the race (3.8km, on the Ironman course). I didn’t go too hard, just tried to stay nice and smooth and enjoy it. Did a few more shorter practice swims before the race – all on the course in Kailua Bay. A a lot of athletes head to the pool in Kona, but there was no way I was going to the pool when that beautiful Hawaiian water was on offer!
As far as riding goes, I did my final long ride on the Sunday before the race and then a couple of shorter rides to keep the legs primed. All of these were done along the famous Queen K highway where the bulk of the race ride is held. I had a couple of incidents such as my Di2 (Shimano’s e-shifting) completely dying before a ride (yes – I’d charged it the night before!), and puncturing on my last ride, the day before the race. I always try to turn a negative into a positive, so for the latter, I saw this as an opportunity to practice changing a tube in case it happened on race day (luckily it didn’t). Riding in Kona is both good and bad – the scenery is great with the lava fields and mountains in the distance, however the roads are really busy with cars and trucks most of the time.
As for running, I had a different prep to usual, for good reason. Ten weeks before the race I was unfortunately diagnosed with a grade three stress fracture of the femur (that’s the biggest bone in the body). Basically, I had a fairly decent crack going into the cortex of the femoral shaft. The usual treatment for this injury is six weeks on crutches (no weight-bearing at all) followed by six weeks of walking/running before resuming normal running and building from there. Unfortunately, the maths didn’t work for me; so, I had six weeks on crutches, then a few weeks of walking/running before tackling an Ironman marathon! Luckily when I got off the crutches the bone had mostly healed, however when you haven’t put weight on your leg for six weeks, let alone run, you know it’s going to be a tough race. I did a few practice runs/walks in Kona, doing my longest run in ten weeks (40 mins), two days before the race. Despite my lack of running time, I actually felt pretty good while running.
Given the leg injury meant the run was going to be challenging (to say the least!), my focus in the last ten weeks before the race was to be the best prepared I could be in every other aspect of the race – swim, ride, nutrition, hydration, heat, etc. After gut problems associated with heat and nutrition the last couple of Ironman races, I spent a lot of time in the sauna before Kona, getting used to the heat, and I changed up my nutrition strategy. For the latter, I used a prototype hydration product (PREPD Hydration) before the race (a starch-based product that allows great water absorption), and I changed to using maltodextrin/fructose gels for the duration of the race (previously I’d used a single source carbohydrate, maltodextrin). So despite the leg injury, I went into the race feeling very well prepared.
The swim start is pretty special – if you haven’t seen a video of the start, take a look here. Like last year I paused for a few moments before the starting canon went off to appreciate how I’d got there and how lucky I was. The water was warm, clear, and calm – and then the canon went off! I felt pretty good on the swim; it wasn’t my best time, but I got out feeling fresh and ready to hit the bike solidly.
Once on the bike, it became apparent that the conditions were a lot milder than last year (or any year for that matter). Whereas my initial strategy was to go relatively easy and respect the heat, I altered that strategy slightly to go hard until it got hot – but it never really did. Just like the heat didn’t materialise, neither did the famous Mumuku trade winds. These famous winds, conjured by the gods of Hawaii, have been known to literally blow riders off their bikes and usually slow the pace down considerably. But the gods obviously had a day off this day so it was a fast ride for all, including me, and several race records were broken (bike records and overall course records). It actually felt like any normal Ironman bike leg, not the infamous hardest Ironman bike leg in the world!
My new hydration/nutrition strategy worked a treat; I managed to get in lots of water and energy without any gut problems. In the last 30km of the ride, it actually rained for a while, something that almost never happens in Kona on race day – training through a rainy Melbourne winter actually had some advantages for a change! After 180km, I rolled into town feeling pretty good, but I knew the hardest part of the day was yet to come.
I always look forward to getting off the bike and feel good in the first part of the run, and this time was no exception. I felt strong, especially during the first 10km down the famous Ali’i Drive. Despite feeling good, I backed the pace off knowing it could get very hard later on, given my lack of run training. Quite a few people had advised me that I should walk through the aid stations in order to preserve my legs. However, for some stubborn reason I HATE to walk during a race, and have never done so, even in the darkest of times. I ran pretty slow at times, but I never felt I needed to walk. I managed to do the whole marathon without walking – I actually didn’t feel like I needed to at any stage – I was comfortable doing the ‘Ironman shuffle’.
I was pretty confident I was going to finish but wasn’t sure until I came out of the toughest part of the run, the infamous ‘Energy Lab’. This portion of the run is situated in the middle of the lava fields – it’s hot and desolate, and was even tougher this year after a course change made it 3km longer. The Energy Lab has been the downfall of many pros and age-groupers over the years. So, I steeled myself and entered the Lab……and 50 minutes later I exited feeling not too bad! Once out, although there were still 10km to go, nothing was going to stop me! I pushed the pace up a bit knowing that if I did any damage to my leg at that stage, I could hang on. The last 2km were awesome as I came off the Queen K highway and back into town. I flew down Palani hill at 4:30/km (!!) pace giving it all I had before swinging back onto Ali’I drive and down the finishing chute. Crossing the line at any race is fantastic, but at Kona it’s the culmination of a dream for most people – it’s a very special place.
I managed to better last year’s time by over five minutes, but more than that, it was probably the most satisfying experience of my life. Ten weeks before, I had a serious injury and was told by many that I was crazy to even contemplate racing. It took a lot of hard work and determination to get there, but I proved that the Ironman slogan is true: “Anything is possible”.
By Stuart Harsley – Pushys sponsored athlete