It has been 10 days since the canon fired in Kona for the start of my first World Championship event. So why a race report only now? It is hard to believe that some people had their post-race reports out the very next morning after the race. Perhaps for them it was just another race, or their scribe had somewhere else to get to and they quickly dictated their experience. I guess it comes down to our individuality. For me, it was going to be when I was ready. Over the years of dreaming about racing at Kona, I had read what the pro athletes had said about the race, as well as what fellow South African had experienced. For me, my first World Championship race was all about experiencing the Big Island of Hawai’i – and as the legend Mark Allen said at the race briefing – spend some time alone with her, listen to her, embrace her and respect her. And I guess that is why I will start this piece at the end.
I miss the Island! Not just the beautiful beaches, the ability to swim with dolphins, turtles and tropical fish, the active volcano and the incredible landscape. But the Island – what she has taught her people and how she has carved out “Mahalo” amongst everyone. The gratitude I have for the people of Kona for the hospitality and warm welcoming still does not seem to measure up to their admiration and respect for having me there. Although referred to as the Big Island, it really is small in comparison to many places, but the open heartedness of the people of Hawai’i can teach many a large country how to respect each and every person and embrace our differences with love and compassion and mutual respect.
So that is essentially how my race day went. I tried to embrace what the Island had to offer on the day. I woke with the feeling that I knew what I had to do. Nothing grand or spectacular – just a swim, bike run. I was happy that my chest infection had cleared up – something I never mentioned in any of my posts as I was so afraid I would not be able to compete. An extra early mission to the check-in area as we had to line up for body marking. A painful process of applying adhesive race number tattoos – unless you had perfectly smooth arms for the tattoos to stick. I will never forget the volunteer exclaiming “oh, you have hair on your arms”… wearing my Orca tri suit with sleeves left her with no option but to stick the tattoo from my elbow to my wrist. As I entered the water, I said goodbye to the tattoo on my right arm. It was all up to the left arm now if I did not want my race pics to end up in the “lost and found” category.
I was very grateful for my Orca RS1 Swimskin when the canon boomed across the bay. The pace was frantic and I swam hard for the first 400m in order to escape the washing machine of the mass start. Once we settled in to a good pace line, I swam at a comfortable pace and did not try and go any harder as it felt like we were moving at a good pace already. I owe a lot to that swimskin. It really did give me the swim confidence and I felt as if I was swimming with a wetsuit on. Around the boat at the half way mark and the surge for home started. I exited the water and pressed the lap button on my Polar V800… must be a mistake I thought as I saw the time. Looked at the time board and realised I had swum a good PB! A moment of gratitude – thanks to the Island waters for my swim and to my coach for getting me more confident with my swimming. Those early morning winter swims where I cursed and cursed and dragged my arms around for the rest of the day must have paid off.
The transition was chaos! Everything is crammed onto 1 small pier – officials, change room tents, 2300 bikes. And you have to run around the entire area to get to your bike. Add in approximately 200 male athletes coming out the water within 30sec of each other and you can imagine the congestion. I freaked out after the race when I saw my transition times and I am still trying to figure out where to cut time as I am generally quite kick in transition. Swimming faster comes to mind!
The bike leg at Kona will always be tough! And you have to embrace what she throws at you. Heat, cross winds, head winds, never a tail wind, scorching heat and even more energy sapping head winds. All that in just 180km. I stuck to my numbers into the headwind on the way out to the turn at Hawi and did not let myself get too carried away by the large bunches flying past me. The climb to Hawi sorted most of the drafting out and the bike marshals did the rest. And I stuck to my numbers again on the way back into the headwind. Don’t worry, my head is still battling with that one too – ride out into a headwind, 180 degree turn and ride back into a headwind. Embrace it I told myself, take whatever she throws at you and don’t panic. The 7 mile intervals between the water points could not come quick enough as the temperature began to soar. I was very grateful I had had the opportunity to ride most of the bike course before the race and I coached myself over the rolling hills back to transition, passing riders who had gone out too hard.
The coolness of the change tent in T2 provided brief respite from the heat and I set out onto the run, my legs adjusting quickly to the new position. Within the first mile I was already looking for the first water point. Turning onto Ali’i Drive along the seaside felt like stepping into a furnace. Less wind and even higher temperatures. Within the 1st 5km I was worried I would not come in under 11 hours. All my energy was focused on trying to keep my body temperature down. I was running with a Puma hydration belt and my trusty Nuun water bottle. Situated at approximately every mile, I would reach a water point and fill my bottle with ice and water. I would use this to cool myself until the next water point. This helped me keep a steady pace along Ali’i drive and then out to the Queen K highway – at which point I passed Jan Frodeno, leader of the race and eventual men’s overall winner. Frodo had a kilometre left…. I had 28 to go… I wondered if I would ever reach the (Natural) Energy Lab as the late afternoon temperatures started to take their toll out on the Queen K. Luckily you can see almost each water station further up the road and I focused on running consistently to each one.
I was prepared for the loop of the Energy Lab, having run it during the week, and I knew once I came out of there it was approximately 6.5 miles to the finish. Focusing on the smaller number of miles left, instead of kilometres to go for the last half of the run helped from a mental perspective. I tried to ignore the runners that were passing out on the course due to heat exhaustion while being aware of how quickly it can happen if you are not in tune with your own body’s temperature regulation. Reaching the top of Pulani Drive and starting the last mile and a half with the cheering crowds was a huge boost. Back on Ali’i drive for the last half mile and the most incredible finish line experience with fellow Saffa and Ironman commentator Paul Kaye welcoming me home. Once again incredible Ironman hospitality in the athlete recovery area and the sharing of race day stories began. For me, perhaps my story was just beginning – I am coming back I told myself.
Qualifying for Kona, getting through the training and experiencing it would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of the following people:
Diana MacPherson, my coach, Neil and team at Dinamic Coaching – thank you for helping me get the numbers right and trusting me to get the job done.
Bernard Wyatt and the team at Fluidlines in South Africa – thank you for the most incredible Orca gear – transition bag, swimskin and Orca trisuit. Feeling and looking like a pro counts a great deal to having a great race.
Harald Zumpt and the team at Polar – It’s all about the numbers and you guys help make it so much easier.
Etienne du Plessis and team at Nuun SA and the guys from Nuun Hydration in the US. Electrolyte replacement was paramount in Kona and I had the best.
Albert Pretorius from USN and the Purefit Team for the nutrition support to help me stick to my meal plan and not get carried away with the Island delicacies.
To the rest of the South African team in Kona – thanks to everyone for the support, encouragement, advice and unforgettable memories.
To my colleagues, family, friends and Izolde Viljoen – I can’t find the words right now to thank you enough and to stress how much your support means to me.
Let’s do this again soon…