I’ll start by saying that although it’s been a dream for years to race in Kona, my focus this season (2022) has been on trail running. I had planned, trained and booked all flights and accommodation in Hawaii for 3 years in a row, each time for them to be changed and eventually cancelled due to the pandemic. It's not an understatement to say that the administration has been the most stressful part of the whole journey to Kona, with some financial losses after the original travel agent I booked with went insolvent.
With 2 weeks before flying, I checked in with my Air B and B host to let him know I would be arriving a day later (after United changed my flight). After 10 months of having this place booked he replied that he no longer had the Air B and B! Air B and B cancelled the reservation but provided no cover for the now 1000% increase in accommodation costs. The average cost per night in Kona was now around £1,000 night, with the cheapest accommodation 6 miles out of town still costing an additional £2,500 on what I had paid to be in town. Tempted to dip into the savings, I resisted and found a similarly priced place elsewhere....90 miles to the east of Kona near Pahoa, which now meant booking a car as well.
Training wise, things had been a little up and down as well. The first few weeks of cycling in Spain were mind blowing. My legs would tire and lose power before my heart rate could even get above 130BPM! After running all year I was completely lacking the muscle needed to produce power on the bike.
A collision with a van in July resulted in a broken collar bone and ruled out swimming for a month. There was also the loss of sleep, ability to do gym work, and rehab to contend with. As the shoulder started to improve, I was able to ramp up training to 27hrs/week including some swimming before the pool closed. Unfortunately to support the high training load I was eating an increased amount of refined sugar, including a daily can of coke. An extremely painful tooth infection developed which required 3 root canal treatments.... and meant another 4 weeks of disrupted sleep, poor nutrition and recovery.
With the temperature normally in the mid to high 30’s during the day and in the high 20’s at night, it was a real struggle to get enough sleep in Spain, with a weekly average of 7-8hrs vs my preferred norm of 9-10 when on training camp. Given I had averaged 27hrs of training per week I thought the goal to go Sub 9 hours, could still be possible. Looking back now I should have reduced my training during this period, as I was actually seeing signs of regression.
Travel out/ Pre race
I travelled from Spain to the UK for 4 days to get my TT bike and triathlon kit ready. After doing all my training on the road bike I made some position changes to the TT bike to make it more comfortable on my shoulder, but probably less aero as a result. A 0300 start to catch a bus to Heathrow, with a 12hr layover in LA, I eventually made it to Hawaii with 52hrs of travelling door to door, and 11 hours of time difference…I was totally wrecked. Interestingly my watch which now records HRV confirmed this, and the rule about needing 1 day for every hour of time difference travelled was spot on, with HRV taking 10 days to return to a balanced state (just in time for race day), and the same again on the journey back.
On day 3 on the island, I drove to Kona, did the swim course and 170km of the bike course knowing I still had 1 week to recover. The wind was testing with an 80mm deep front wheel. I had a sketchy moment with a lorry coming past and another coming down from Hawi, that almost side-lined me into the barrier. I thought it would be manageable on race day assuming winds didn’t blow harder than the 50kph/30mph or so they were that day. The big takeaway from the day was how hard it was to keep up with hydration and estimated that I was losing 2 litres of sweat per hour. The last week was spent mostly focussed on swimming and one last long run. The focus on swimming saw me go from 2:00/100m (for 2.5km in a wetsuit) to 1:40/100m (in my swim skin for 5km) in just 2 weeks. This was encouraging as much as it was frustrating to think how much further along my swimming could get if hadn't been for the collar bone. With 2 days to go I felt a bit of freshness coming back, and my heart rate on the bike and run were almost normal. I stayed the night before the race with a family 20 minutes from Kona as I didn’t fancy a 0130 start on race day.
0330 start. Terrible sleep in an unfamiliar bed with dogs barking, doing the classic of waking every hour to look at my watch. Breakfast of fried potatoes, bacon and eggs, which sounds heavy but find is good when the rest of the day will be sugary sports drinks and gels. Drive to Kona, find a parking spot easily which is a bonus. Sort out my bike in transition (bike shoes, bottles, tyres etc). Drop off street bag, walk out of transition area, realise I still have my shoes on for the swim, so do the whole loop again, and drop off my shoes. Munch a packet of cliff bloks and drink a bottle of Maurten 320 mix 20 mins out.
Started over towards the left had side away from the pier in order to swim the straightest line to the first few buoys. Start at the back to avoid getting pummelled. Fair amount of jostling for position until the turnaround at halfway. Developed a weird metaphor/analogy for people around me, based on their swimming styles and comparing them to big African animals. Find the feet of a massive bloke (Hippo, deceptively fast through the water), myself and few other crocs try to slipstream him. Out of nowhere comes a galloping Giraffe, limbs flailing in all directions, with an elbow cracking me on the side of the head, and my amusing analogy comes to end. Get to the turnaround and notice the odd blue swim cap (from the wave who started 10 mins ahead) so can't be doing too badly. The herd thins out a bit into smaller groups and I stay on the same feet for a good 15 mins. Tried to overtake him and realised how much harder it is breaking the current first. Swim over to another pack, who are unfortunately even slower. Swim at max effort just to overtake people by 10 meters but manage to find fast feet. I was constantly surging to hold onto his feet though until the last 100m. I was surprisingly pleased to see 1hour and 8 mins on my watch, which is still slow, but 20 mins faster than when I swam it solo 1 week earlier.
The pace and heart rate graph tells you everything you need to know about the swim. Due to the current the first half of the swim was faster ( 1:40/100m with a HR of about 150BPM) vs the second half (1:50/100m and HR around 160BPM!) The other takeaway is that you need to fight for position in the first half of the swim to stay on the feet of the stronger swimmers. If you stay on average feet in the first half, the gaps that open in the second half, and you might find yourself in a slowing group off the main "train" of swimmers. It also meant I spiked my heart rate up to threshold trying to overtake swim packs, all for no improvement (and maybe a decrease) in pace. Based on the 5x1km session I had done in the pool earlier that week, I’d say whatever the pace you can hold for 5km in the pool is about the pace you can swim for this course.
I downed a 750ml bottle of Maurten 320 mix as I ran through T1. It was congested at the start which meant constant accelerations to overtake and then decelerate again. This concertina effect is inefficient, but also makes it impossible for riders to obey drafting and blocking rules. On the first descent, I hit an unmarked pothole which threw my pre mixed bottle out the back. With riders coming behind at 60kph, there was no way of going back for it. Out on to the highway and it was busy until 40km but now with the added effort from a steady headwind. There seemed to be very little team work or communication between riders, most just had their heads down rather than responding to what was happening around them. This meant that big gaps opened up between individuals. Averaging 35kph into a 15kph headwind means a 30 watt saving (just for the 1st man back)at the legal 12 meters position. I said to a rider who seemed similarly matched, “ lets bridge up?”. The next group were 200 meters further up the road, and he gave a thumbs up. I raised the effort for the next 2 minutes expecting him to come to the front at some point to do a turn, 4 minutes later and I had bridged the gap with no help from my supposed allies.
I slowed at the first aid station to replace my lost bottle. I'd trained using Gatorade that week, but not specifically "Gatorade endurance" which tasted like undiluted orange squash. I managed to drink a bottle, but it was too strong, resulting in my stomach not emptying, with anything else I drank coming back up. I stopped drinking for a while, opting for pouring water (which was icy cold!) over myself for cooling instead. At about 60km I found a good mix of riders, 1 giant of a man, and couple of others who weren't afraid to ride on the front. The turn up to Hawi felt much better as the headwind was now an easy crosswind, and although the average gradient is only 1.6% I was able to make up places climbing, while maintaining a tucked position.
The field had thinned out on the way back down. I noticed a motorbike referee hanging 50 meters back over my shoulder, so I made a perfect pass (completely avoiding his draft) of the rider in front to show I was playing by the rules. He pulled up to me and said “Number 2450, drafting penalty, report to the next tent”. I was confused more than I was angry and decided not to let it affect me. I probably backed off the pace too much looking out for the next 40km for the penalty tent. 5 minutes is a long time to be held still on the course, plus the time lost slowing to a standstill, then accelerating back up to speed. The one positive was being able to grab a coke and gel before the tent, and drinking the whole thing while standing upright. The last 40km, had a tailwind so I was flying back in before easing off coming into T2. I forced a pee coming into town which was very dark and confirmed by my thirst that I would be starting the run dehydrated.
For anyone who watched the Ironman and 70.3 World championships, you would have seen a number of very harsh and "bullshit" (Joe Skippers words) penalties. Can't say that it was any fairer for the age groupers either (who have even more lenient rules of being able to pass through a draft zone during an overtake). Either way Ironman triathlon is certainly not "non-drafting" despite them continuing to call it that. It's like an elephant in the room for the commentators who constantly seem to skirt around the subject, and certainly don't make any mention to the data coming out of wind tunnels. The pros have been banging the drum for 20 meter spacings for some time now, but I don’t think this will happen as ultimately it means less people (and therefore money) can be crammed onto a course.
The rules are outdated, as is the regulation. A 5 minute penalty was more than the difference between 1st and 4th in Kona, and it's a race ender for a 70.3 (bad luck Sam Long). How a person can judge the difference between 12m and 11.99m whilst travelling at speed on a motorbike and timing 25 seconds (unless they using some camera measuring tech I'm not aware of?) is subjective and ultimately pointless when there's a drafting benefit to as far back as 20m. Ironically these same moto refs, as well as the camera bikes (who create much larger slipstreams than a cyclist) are actually moto pacing athletes to faster times (from as far as 40 meters in front!). I know Sam Laidlow averaged 315 watts during his bike course record (which is huge) but he did also have 4hrs of close ups from the camera bikes in front of him!
Ironman are way behind the times, and either need a technological solution (like a infra red device that measure distance between riders, have lights to warn you, even display distance and a 25 second “passing” countdown timer, potentially even an algorithm that spits out a time penalty based on how long you spent too close to other riders), or they need to update the rules. Considering Kona race entry is now $1400 dollars, I think this could be a realistic/cost effective solution. Equally If I were Ironman/WTC I would genuinely consider making Ironman into a draft legal format, everyone gets to ride towards "sub 7", and you can have twice as many athletes on course...You're welcome Andrew Messick. Since the PTO is now the face of professional racing, and they operate a 20 meter spacing (which in real wind conditions is "non-drafting"), Ironman need to “evolve or die”.
Legs weren't cramping or stiff running into T2, to the point that I thought I might have underdone the bike leg, but given everything you read about the Kona run course this was probably a good thing. The first 10km felt uncomfortable, due to heat rather than the pace (I took out the 1st Km at 3:42 which was too fast). I was hovering around 158-162bpm which I knew was about right from the training runs I had done to not overheat. After 10km of running my stomach felt better and a combination of sipping from another 750ml bottle of Maurten, along with ice from the aid stations in my cap, was doing a good job of keeping the heat at a bearable level.
The Queen K section out was hillier with a headwind, so although the effort level felt the same, I was going slower already. At around 21km I started to feel the legs tiring, but not yet feel bad. Going Into the energy lab was actually great, as it was downhill and into a headwind, so less effort with more cooling. The way back out was painful. Not even that steep but it seemed like the heat had doubled in intensity. After listening to the Norwegians post race, it's apparently the rate at which your body's temperature changes that you really notice as "heat" and what slows you down, rather than your actual temperature, that will unlikely reach heat stroke levels. Either way it seemed to be the final straw, with just 10km left back on the highway, things started to fall apart. Personally I think this is an ideal time in an Ironman for this to happen in terms of pacing, as you want to reach the finish having emptied the tank. Regardless of thinking positively on this fact, it didn't help the situation. If I tried to run faster my legs would cramp up, so I had to maintain what can only be described as "ugly" form and try and relax as much as possible. That last 10km was the longest I've experienced in a long time, with the classic of thinking you've been going for 20 minutes then look at your watch, and its only been 5. I took my time at the last aid station, and with clenched hands and gritted teeth eventually made it to Ali'i drive and the finish line.
The run pacing graph from Strava is a really informative. The first 10km is the easiest ¼ of the race for multiple reasons. Your not completely fucked yet. There’s shade sections and spectators with hoses. The wind comes across you from the sea rather than from behind (causing overheating) or head on (slowing you down). The elevation is flat compared to the rest of the course.
The overall trend for the pacing was 4:00/km at the start, to 4:40/km at the end, a slip of 1 sec/km which ideally I would like to half. For example starting at 4:10 pace and eventually slipping to 4:30 pace would mean an average of 4:15 vs the 4:19 that managed.
The next key point is the drop off in pace that occurs every 3km... which you’ve probably guessed...are the aid stations, of which there were about 14. Each aid station was pretty crowded meaning you couldn’t just run through grabbing but had to stop and “help yourself”. On average looking at my splits I would say this added 15 seconds each time (which is not a lot considering it kept you cool enough to be able to keep running).
Overall, I felt really happy with the performance. To have come back from a broken collar bone 11 weeks before the race, get in bike shape in a massive 6 week block, and still knock out a 9:20 (1:08, 4:55 ;) 3:04) on debut in Kona feels like a proud achievement. It's a shame to have got a penalty but that's racing, and ultimately it didn't do anything to my experience of the race. Every other athlete I spoke to after the race either didn't have the race they wanted or weren't happy with their performance. Perfectionism is a big appeal in triathlon, with so many areas to improve on, and the process of seeing improvement is addictive. I'd like to keep doing the odd triathlon in the years to come as it's a great sport, but the potential of making it to world class level has been confirmed as unobtainable. Gustav Iden's 7:40 time, the top 4 all coming in under 7:44, and top 10 under 8 hrs is truly incredible. This is genuinely down to the level of the top guys now racing rather than it being an "easy year". The fastest age grouper did 8:31, still way off Dan Plews' 8:24, and not a single age grouper would have come within British Triathlons pro card criteria of the top finishers time+10% . If I ever go back to Kona it would be to target an age group win or potentially target the run course record (2:36), which holds a lot of appeal. The focus on ultra running has been cemented, where I'm fast approaching the elite level, and do believe I have a chance of making it as a professional. A Hui Hou!