I’ve been asked to post any old race reports I have and I’ve put a couple of them up over the last few months. Here’s my first Kona experience in 2012.
It’s hard to know where to start with this one. I’ve been waiting to get to this start line for 15 years or more and its all exceeded any expectations I’ve ever had.
Friday we arrived to bike check in and bag drop and it, like everything else so far this week, was unlike anything else I’d ever experienced at any other race. When you check in your bike your bags are also checked (not for illegal substances but to be sure you haven’t forgotten your bike & run shoes!)
Then the most impressive part begins as everyone is taken individually by an escort through transition. They walk you to your spot, let you rack your bike and explain the flow of transition, where you enter, which way you run etc. Next they take you to the bag racks walking you through both the bike and run racking area.
This is done individually with every one of the almost 2000 athletes. This race has over 5000 volunteers for just under 2000 athletes and it shows in the level of athlete care and attention to detail. Again and again I was amazed at how incredibly far Ironman went to look after us. You feel like you are somewhere really special, you feel like this is the most important race in the world and you are a part of it. You feel like a rock star and to be honest I felt like a bit of an imposter, I was constantly waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and apologise saying “We’re sorry Mr Cummins but some toolbox somewhere made a mistake and you’re not really meant to be here” Luckily enough I managed to avoid this and made it to the race start.
Race day started for us at 3am about 4 hours before the race start. We headed into the race area early as I wanted to not only avoid the last minute rush and queues but I wanted to soak up as much of the atmosphere as possible. First up was body marking and like every other detail so far this was an experience in itself and took about 5 minutes. Each athlete had 2 people doing the marking, one using a stamp to put each digit on and the other touching up any mistakes with a sharpie marker and a q-tip. Both women chatted to me and made sure the numbers were perfectly applied before wishing me luck and sending me on my way. Next up was a weigh in where your weight was taken and recorded then on into transition to drop off my bottles & food for the bike.
Here again you get a sense of the huge occasion with World Champions Craig Alexander & Mirinda Carfrae in transition with all the top pros. TV cameras and journalists are wandering around and I’m trying to soak it all in. I want to remember every bit of it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back here again so I don’t want to forget anything. Once I’m sorted I head out to Ais and my folks. The sun starts to come up and the atmosphere and excitement is building. Pretty soon it’s time to head to the swim start. The pro men and women start 30 & 25 minutes before us then we head into the water. I waited till about 7-8 minutes before the start and wade in. It’s about 200 meters out to the start line and I swim easy trying to soak in the buzz stopping and looking around a couple of times still not quite believing I’m swimming out to the start of the most iconic and famous triathlon in the world.
They fire a cannon to start the race and we are off. It’s not as rough as some of the other races I’ve done. I’m surrounded by good swimmers who are going in the right direction for the most part and I don’t get hit or pushed around too much. I’m not expecting a fast time, in fact it will probably be my slowest IM swim as it’s non wetsuit. I expect (hope) on a good day between 1hr12-1hr20. I settle quickly into a rhythm and get into a good group. The first half flies by and I’m around the turn and heading back, all the time reminding myself to enjoy it. I don’t get much time to check out the extraordinary wildlife swimming around below us because I’m sighting and following feet but every so often a flash of yellow or blue shoots past making me smile. Thankfully I didn’t see any of the sharks Alan Ryan kept telling me were out there. I was out of the water at about 1hr19 which is a very slow swim by Kona standards but it’s about where I expected to be this time.
I exit what was a slow trip through transition and pass Ais, Mam and Dad waving tricolours just at the start of the bike course and this puts another big grin on my face. I start conservatively knowing how hard the bike course (& run) is supposed to be. The first couple of hours go fairly well albeit slower than I would hope. I’m not sure if it’s the wind or just my legs (I assume it’s me) but I’m not making my usual progress through the field. I have to remind myself these are the best athletes from all around the world. The top of each age group from each race and I hope that my steady start will see me move up the field later in the day.
When we get to the climb up to Hawi we really hit the famous Hawaii winds. It’s a savage head and cross wind all the way up the climb but I’m moving better, getting through the field and feeling good. After the turnaround it’s a wild ride back down with a mix of screaming tailwinds switching to a savage crosswind with almost no warning. I’m still moving well and able to stay in the Tri bars almost all the way. At this stage Im thinking if I’m lucky with the winds on the way back I’ll actually have a decent time on the bike. I’d started out hoping for about a 5hr10-20 bike split and at this stage it looked like I would be ahead of that. Then we turn back into the Queen K and run into a wall of wind and maybe I realise that I may need to readjust my time expectations. The wind is in our face relentlessly the whole way back and it’s getting hotter. It’s like riding straight into the biggest hairdryer in the world with the fan and heat turned up full.
I start to fade. I realise I’m gonna be on the bike for maybe 5 hours 30 then 5:40. I don’t get too worried and remind myself that everyone has the same conditions to deal with and to keep on enjoying the experience, it’s not every day I get to ride my bike on the most famous road in Ironman in Hawaii.
Ais, Mam and Dad were again waving the flag and cheering as I came in the last couple of hundred metres and into T2.A quicker second transition and I headed out onto the run with slightly heavy legs and it is savagely hot. I had decided the day before to run with a bottle belt for the marathon but after 500mts I couldn’t hack it and threw it to my folks after Palani Drive.
After the first kilometre my legs settled and I started to feel good. Moving past people steadily for the first 10k. I was bang on my target pace. I had decided to start a little slower than I would usually run an IM marathon because I wasn’t sure how I would handle the heat. At the 10k mark though I started overheating and slowing down. Don’t panic I thought you’re still moving well…sort of… My pace settled at about 6 minute kilometres. I was now moving a full minute slower per kilometre than I’d started out at but I thought I can do this for as long as it takes.
I’ve had bad patches and recovered before in the middle of a marathon so maybe if I’m careful my legs would come back. Heading back into town I knew Ais would be on the hill at Palani. I knew at this stage that my time was going to be very slow so I was just going to enjoy it as much as possible. High-fiving my way all the way up Palani with great support from the huge crowds and loving every minute of it. At the top I turned onto the Queen K for the second time today.
This time though we have 26k of running ahead of us. It only takes another mile for the wheels to come off completely and I’m reduced to walking the aid stations to fill my hat with ice and take on water and the occasional banana or gel. I’d never experienced anything like the savage heat. The end of each aid station was torture getting going every time but the thought of being out all night keeps me running (very slowly) I was constantly getting passed by people in their 50’s and 60’s. Very fit looking 60 year olds but still 20+ years older than me all the same.
It’s unbelievably humbling. In the last year I got myself into the best shape of my life by a long way and here I am falling apart in what is supposed to be my strongest part of the race and getting passed by guys almost old enough to be my father.
The marathon in particular but to be honest the whole day is a very humbling experience. I feel just like I did at my first Ironman. A complete beginner. I cant believe how hard this race is and how far down the field I am. And not just now when I feel like I’m falling apart, but getting out of the swim and seeing more than half of the bikes gone from transition. Not getting much further up the field on the bike and to top it off I’m falling apart on the run like I haven’t done in years.
The heat is savage. I fill my hat with ice at every aid station giving myself an ice cream headache and it’s melted before I get to the next aid station. I repeat the process, I throw cups of water over myself and stuff sponges in the back of my Tri suit and I’m still roasting. It’s so hard to keep on running and I still keep telling myself to enjoy it. I won’t allow my head to drop or feel sorry for myself. I dreamed for years of being here and there are hundreds of people who would swap places in an instant so I don’t allow myself to do anything except soak it in and try to hang on to as many memories as I can.
At about 5 miles to go I decide I’m going to run all the way, no more walking in the aid stations no matter how much it hurts and I’m going to run it well. I try to pick up the pace, it holds for about a half a mile and starts to slip and I dig in again and again and eventually I’m at the top of Palani hill with a downhill and only 1 mile to go.
I pick up the pace again before telling myself to run steady. It’ll all be over in a couple of minutes and I should enjoy the last bit. The time is meaningless at this stage so I soak in the atmosphere. People are cheering and high-fiving all the way in. I can’t stop smiling. I stopped to kiss Ais on the way into the finishing chute and I took the Irish flag for the best finish line I’ve ever experienced.
The finishing chute was the longest I’ve done and at the same time not nearly long enough. I wanted the feeling to go on and on. It’s the first time I’ve carried an Irish flag over the finish of a race and there was a huge sense of pride. I’m very proud of being Irish but for the first time I felt like I earned a finish carrying our flag. Something I never thought I would get to do.
Immediately there was a huge feeling of relief as I crossed the line. It’s the first time since my first Ironman that I was afraid of not finishing. Afraid that something outside of my control would end my race early and stop me crossing that finish line. The pressure for the last couple of races was in the performance, in the need to qualify. This time I knew that a lot of people were watching at home. I had tons of good luck messages in the last couple of weeks and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone so the overriding feeling was relief. There was still a part of me that was gutted that I was so slow but I tried not to think about that yet, there would be plenty of time for that later. For now I just want to enjoy this feeling.