There were no sharks, I didn’t drown and I was more or less on time getting out of the water. So in all of those regards the swim was uneventful, thankfully nothing really went wrong. Oh, except that I’m still slow. I exited the water not knowing that I was in 275th overall and in 45th place in the age group. This did not bode well considering I needed to be top four in my AG and probably top forty overall for the Kona slot I was chasing.
I don’t think my placing would have surprised me too much, disappointed yes, so it’s probably still just as well I didn’t know at the time. I had hoped that I would be further up, like maybe inside the top 20 in the age group. But I wasn’t and I didn’t know it at the time. Either way I knew my race really only started on the bike.
Kona Secrets book available
Kona Secrets: Lessons learned from over 50 Kona Qualifications.
Knowledge doesn’t produce results, action does. Just knowing how to do something doesn’t guarantee success, especially something as difficult as qualifying for Kona; you have to put in the hours. In this book I share some of the lessons I learnt between being a back-of-the-pack beginner to qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
The bike in Florida is flat. Really flat and the road surface is fast. The only thing that can impact a fast time is the wind and it wasn’t too bad today. At least it didn’t seem to affect me too much, maybe that’s because I’m finally getting some bike strength back, maybe my aero position was good, maybe I was just lucky with timing.
The winds on race day were forecasted to sort of change direction as we went. In fact we were predicted to have a light head wind on the way out and the way back as well as when we were going both east and west. It’s like the accuweather.com app was lining up a particularly cruel joke. But at least they said winds were due to be light.
From the start of the bike two things happened. My legs were sore and my average speed was high. Both things I took to be good signs. Having sore legs for the first 30 minutes or so often happens to me on days that I go on to have my best rides but it’s still a little worrying until the soreness abates.
My plan was to get into a nice, fast, legal pace line. This happens when you get riders of a similar ability riding the legal distance apart but even at 8-12 meters you get a draft benefit so will ride faster in a paceline than alone. This works really well on a flat course. Whenever a rider passed me early on I tried to decide if he was riding just enough faster than me to try and go with him or if he was too much faster.
I think it was in the first 20k that a big solid looking rider came by at a fairly decent speed. He looked like he was going too fast but I kept an eye on him going up the road trying to figure if he would make a good pacer. I decided the best way to find out was to go after him so I accelerated. My legs protested briefly but then accepted that this was what was going on and the early soreness/discomfort also just sort of evaporated.
I caught up to the big unit and settled in at a legal distance behind him and after a minute decided that this felt just right. We rolled on, passing people constantly and over the next while picked up another couple of riders who were also looking for a legal group to ride with.
I was very surprised to see very little drafting, the rolling swim start probably had a lot to do with that. There was also lots of draft marshals on the bike and they would pull up alongside us, pause there for a minute before moving on up the road. The bike was really uneventful for the most part. The best race report stories usually come from things going wrong and how we cope with them (or not) but this ride just kept getting better and better. My average speed kept on climbing, my effort felt controlled, even easy at times and all went well.
They went well until about 130k that was at which point I found myself off the road on the grass verge going about 50kph with only one hand on the bars and a water bottle in the other one.
I was sitting up after an aid station pouring water down my back and inside my helmet to keep cool and momentarily turned to check which rear water bottle holder was free and the next thing I knew I was on the grass and was just about to go down hard. I reflexively grabbed the bars and went to hit the brakes but instinct kicked in. I knew that braking hard on the sandy, loose verge would only hasten my impact with the ground. Instead I started pedalling and regained some control. As soon as I steadied myself I carefully turned and headed back towards the road and had to bunny hop back up the kerb.
I can only credit my first introduction to biking while riding mountain bikes as being what saved me. Finding yourself unexpectedly off road and about to crash at close to 50kph on a pretty unstable tribike your first instinct is going to be to try to slow to a stop. Pedalling out of danger went against every triathlete instinct I had but the mountain biker in me kne w better. “Momentum is your friend” was one of the first things I learned and has stuck with me ever since. Thankfully.
However I did lose all of my on bike nutrition on the off road excursion. Luckily though I had started with more than I thought I would need so that I would have a choice later on of which type of sugary rubbish I could still stomach late in the ride. I still had two gels left in my tri suit pockets that hadn’t been ejected during my brief cross country excursion.
The fright of almost crashing really woke me up. I realised that I’d been just sort of riding on autopilot as the fatigue started to kick in. There was a couple of draggy uphill sections of road and I got out of the saddle and stretched and picked up the effort. I rode away from the group I’d been with but figured they’d catch up when I settled on the next flat section. They didn’t and I started to ride through more and more riders as people faded. I felt incredibly strong and tried hard to control my effort with the upcoming marathon coming more to the forefront of my mind.
All the way to T2 I felt good and was looking forward to the run. After counting riders ahead of me at an out and back section and going on how many more I passed I figured I was somewhere inside the top 60-70. At the time I had no idea where that put me in the age group in the age group. But talking to a friend who was tracking the race afterwards I had moved up to 12th in the age group and 53rd overall passing 223 athletes in the process.
Despite how well the bike had gone there was an underlying panicked feeling as I knew I was racing from behind. I’m always racing from behind so I’m used to it and I dont let it control my decisions, rather I use it to fuel my drive when I start to suffer. Knowing I may not have done enough keeps me pushing on to the end.
- Bike 4:50:17
- Average speed 37.4kph
- Age group position 12th
- Overall position 53rd
This is where it will all be decided. For the first time in four years I’ve managed to get myself into a place on the bike where I can realistically race for a Kona spot on the run. Ive raced here in Florida before and last time I ran a 3:17 marathon. At this stage I’m guessing that a 3:30 should be good enough to qualify but I also think that I can run faster than that. I think that on a good day I can probably go close to or even slightly faster than a 3:20.
My Garmin beeps to tell me I’ve gone through the first kilometre and it say’s that was a 4:38 kilometre. That’s a little fast and I try to slow down a bit but the next one is 4:40. I pull back more and over the next few k’s I settle just under 5 minutes/k which is right on target. I prefer to try to start off easier and build into the marathon, usually making the middle 25k the fastest.
It’s much hotter today than the last time I raced here so times might be a little slower. The next few kilometers click by and by the time I get to the 10k mark I think that holding onto my pace will be as good as it gets today. I don’t feel like I have any other gears so I can’t speed up. Aside from the heat I feel pretty good and the k’s keep on ticking off at around or just below 5 minutes.
I was catching and passing runners constantly through the early part of the marathon and I think I managed to get as high as 6th in the age group. Every time I passed another 45-49 athlete I knew it would show on the tracker for the people following me online and I got a kick from that as well as the boost from actually making the pass.
At around the 25 kilometre mark I started to cramp really badly and my pace dropped dramatically. I tried to change my running stride and gait so as to hold off the cramps. I was reduced to a very slow run. My pace dropped from the 5 minute kilometres I’d been holding to 6 minute/k’s as the cramps spread. Every time I tried to speed up my calves and hamstrings tied up in cramps. I kept on pushing as hard as I could without tipping myself over the edge and cramping up completely but I was moving slowly.
I still thought there was a slim chance that I was close to the qualifying slots as others around me slowed to a walk or stopped altogether. It was all I could do to maintain even the slow run I was reduced to. Turning corners or a change in the camber of the road caused the cramps to worsen again and again. The highlight of the run was passing on my way to the finish Ais as she headed out on her first lap. She was running well and in great form.
In the last few kilometers my biggest worry became what would happen when I crossed the finish and stopped moving, I knew the only thing holding off a complete cramp meltdown was the fact that I was still running. I had visions of myself collapsing into a big ball of whole body cramps at the finish. I didn’t really want to do that on the finish line camera so I planned on running just far enough past it before collapsing like a big drama queen.
The relief of turning off the course after my second lap and heading to the finish a half a mile away was short lived as I heard runners catching me from behind. I pushed harder and the cramps tightened but I couldn’t take the chance of losing a place before the end so I hung on as every muscle in my legs tied up one after another. I dont know how I even stayed on my feet for the finish chute but somehow managed to and I stayed ahead of the two runners behind me.
As I had feared as soon as I stopped moving the cramps took over and I started to collapse and the lady who placed my medal over my head caught me and tried to keep me moving away from the finish line but nothing would work. I couldn’t stand or move or sit and it took two volunteers, one supporting me under each arm to get me moving again. As I looked up I saw the finish line camera and cringed.
- Run 3:47:27
- Final position AG 10th
- Final Position Overall 77th
We went to the awards ceremony the following day just in case someone who qualified didn’t take their Kona slot and it rolled down as far as me, this was unlikely but not unheard of. There was 4 slots and the guy in second place turned his down. However the athlete in 5th place accepted that one.
In the end I missed qualifying by 7 minutes 42 seconds. I’ve no doubt that in the run alone I have at least 20 minutes and maybe as much as 30 minutes still to improve. I’ve run 30 minutes faster on this course before albeit on a cooler day. Even allowing for the very hot temperatures we had for the marathon I’m confident there is a lot more still to come.
At the end of the day there are things you can control in a race and things you can’t. Getting a Kona slot isn’t in my control. How I race is. Who shows up in my age group isn’t within my control. How I react to what goes on during the day is. Aisling calls it racing with your heart. All I wanted was to race to the best of my ability, to empty the tank, to leave it all out on the race course, to not have any regrets. Of course I also wanted to take a Kona slot but that unfortunately wasn’t to be today.
Even more than I wanted the Kona slot, I want to be a certain type of athlete. Regardless of whether I qualified or not I wanted to feel like I’d acted and performed in a way that I could be proud of. I wanted to make Aisling proud and I knew that wouldn’t come from the result I managed to get but rather from how I raced all day.
I must admit that I also wanted to feel like a Kona person again. I think as much as anything else over the last few months that was a big drive. I wanted to feel fast again. Of course fast is a very relative term. The really fast guys at the front of the race put the rest of us in a very different perspective. But I wanted to feel like I was fast. It’s one of the things I’ve missed most over the last few years. As surprising as it sounds I do feel like a Kona person despite not actually qualifying. Seven minutes over 9-10 hours is nothing. I now know that I can get back to the level required to qualify again.
In all of the Ironman races I’ve done when it starts to hurt, it hurts way more than you remember. And it’s much harder to deal with that hurt than you think it will be. The real race only starts at about 25k into the run and it’s the one part you can’t train for. You can never replicate in training just how sore and tired and sick and hot you are when you get to the last part of an Ironman. It’s impossible to practice, all you can do is visualise and go through in your mind how you will cope with it in the weeks and months leading up to the race. I think I coped fairly well. I didn’t slow because I gave in to the pain or discomfort or because I felt sick. I slowed because of the cramps. I don’t really think there was anything else I could have done. It was either run slower or stop or walk.
I’ll take a couple of weeks off and decide what’s next but I think that my decision is more or less already made. I want to race again. I just need to decide where.
Chasing Kona eBook available
From smoker to back of the pack triathlete to the Ironman World Championships.
Read about how I overcame all of the odds and discovered what it would take to get to the Ironman World Championships – my eBook is now available to buy as an eBook on Amazon UK, Amazon US, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes
It is also available as a paperback at Wheelworx.