Ironman World Championship, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The whole experience is surreal – the build up, the actual event, looking back – it’s a bubble of an experience that I’m still trying to comprehend.
I raced really, really well. I did not compete as fiercely as sometimes I do - there are seconds and minutes, even tens of minutes that, if I had been full-on competing, I could have shaved off. But it wasn’t about that. It was about being in the moment, soaking it in, moving fast, smiling, bringing some extra joy to athletes, volunteers and spectators, and just living it up.
Here are the results and short stories from Kona 2017:
Swim: 57:54 – 223rd of 1700 men.
Bike: 4:55 – total race time of 5:57 for 106th of 1700 men.
I received a position foul on the bike, for riding on the left. This resulted in a 5 minute (!!) penalty. Without the penalty my total time would have been about 5:52. That puts me in 32nd place off the bike (8th American).
Run: 3:42 for 9:42 total time. 220 of 1700 men.
As I write about later, I stopped “fiercely competing” during the run. Who knows - this may have actually saved me from a complete melt-down. Regardless, for this day and this race, it was a great decision that made for a day I’ll cherish forever.
Short Stories From The Biggest Race In Triathlon
Compared to other races, everything about Kona is a little more hyped, tension-filled and grand. Gear check-in is a great example. For an Ironman, it’s typical that you check-in your bike, bike transition bag and run transition bag the afternoon prior to the race. The same thing happens at Kona, but bigger.
Entering Kona’s transition with your gear is triathlon’s closest thing to a fashion show catwalk. You wheel your shined and tuned bike into a fenced-in corral and over a stage where the race MCs announce your name, hometown, age, race experience, etc. There are loads of people lining the fence, checking out the athletes. Then you push your bike through a narrow section of fencing that is lined with guys and girls sitting on barstools, all wearing polo shirts and holding clipboards. These people are doing the ‘Kona Bike Count’ – they’re counting the number of frames, groupsets, helmets, power meters, aerobars, saddles and wheels from brand x, brand y, brand z. Then a personal guide is assigned to you to walk you through transition and make sure that you don’t screw with anyone else’s gear and that you put your stuff in the right places.
Personally, this was all a little much. The grand spectacle was kind of cool, but I’m running so hot 12 hours out – I’m sure my excitement and fear were plain to see.
By 7am, 1700 men were treading water, bobbing up and down in the slight swell, jostling for position, eyeing the race clock as it neared the 7:05am start time. I was 3 or 4 deep from the front, on the far right and in-line with the buoys, the most popular place to be. It must have been 8 or 10 deep. Fast Hawaiian drum music played over the speakers, Mike Riley pumped up the crowd and spectators and athletes alike were yelling, laughing and crying.
“Be cool. Be cool. Just a couple minutes, and the wait will finally be over.”
Swim Proximity and Skill
Everybody can swim fast, so we essentially swam a one giant group of 1700. Right, left, front and back, I don’t think there was ever more than a few meters from me to another athlete. Thankfully, all the athletes near me were reasonably skilled swimmers, so there was actually less than the usual bumping and swimming through and over. I felt great in the water on this particular day and far exceeded my expectations, coming out of the water in 57 minutes, 244th of 2400 total.
Everybody Looks The Same
All week you see the athletes running and biking and practicing the swim course. Everybody looks the same – scary fit. Like, “I’m scared to race/ride/run/coffee-shop-ride/ski/hike/do anything physical with that person.” The athletes are different, of course. A select few will finish the race under 9 hours, while most will take the better half of an entire day or longer to finish. But every athlete looks the part of “World Championship” and you cannot say that anyone looks more or less like a podium contender.
Maybe some pictures of the Kona Underpants Run would be fun and can prove the point.
Transition is a very busy place, during select times, at Kona. 240 guys finished the swim between 55 and 60 minutes. This should have resulted in a clamorous and hectic transition area. But it didn’t. A calm understanding ruled transition – there was still a looong way to go. Keep the heart rate and adrenaline under control. Walking a few steps won’t matter. This was the busiest but most tranquil transition I’ve experienced.
I was heading out on the Queen K portion of the run course when the leading pro was coming back the other way, just 1 mile from the finish. He was flying.
The image that was more striking and that I will never forget was the next guy. Lionel Sanders was in second place, 30 seconds back. He was shattered. The incessant pace and impossible conditions had taken their toll, and Lionel was shattered. He had lost all mobility. There was no efficiency left. His right foot barely left the ground, nearly dragging along.
Lionel raced brave. I doubt anyone pushed themselves as far as he did on the day. He had utterly destroyed himself - it is incomprehensible to me and to everyone else, and probably even to Lionel, what he was feeling during the back half of that marathon. The image of him willing his way through the last mile is horrible and beautiful and unforgettable.
Only One Man
Only one man, out of the World’s strongest field, looked efficient and fast from mile 22 through the finish at mile 26.2. And that man won the race. That’s how hard this race is – we all dream of flying along at ‘race pace’ for the last few miles, but only one man in the world actually did it.
Why I Didn’t 100% Compete
I did something weird on race day. Maybe not weird. But certainly certainly it was unusual for me – I gave myself the opportunity to stop ‘competing’, and I took it. I decided that I would keep running and keep trying, but that I didn’t need to compete for every second and every place.
I don’t think I’ll fully understand it or that anyone else will, and I don’t expect everyone to accept it. Whatever the driving forces were - fear, internal pressure, external expectations, sunshine, tiredness, w.e. - I’m happy and proud to have done something different than the usual and something authentic.
If I could redo anything differently this prior year, I would do less towards the end of training. That’s easy to say now. But I think that I was mentally drained from 10 months of training, finishing with huge workouts one-on-top-of-the-next, and getting sick at a most inconvenient time. I pushed through everything to finish every single workout. That was not necessary. Hindsight is easy, skipping workouts is not easy. Hopefully, in the future, I can do physically less and mentally more to prepare for a 100% effort. I didn't go to Kona to compete or with the intention of winning my age group or anything like that. And that's fine and maybe even that's good. But, in the future, if I'm going to race and compete with a 100% effort, I'm will need to go in with a different attitude and intention.
Here are my race notes for ‘why’ I ran the way I did:
“ There were a lot of reasons, probably. Fear, internal and external expectations, tiredness, fatigue, preparatory thoughts, going too deep to often, etc. Probably I decided or it was decided well before race day. So I didn't run my fastest run. Shit was still plenty hard. That run course and conditions are every bit as hard as I imagined it could be. You need to be willing to jump down the well and dig it even deeper, if you're going to really compete with yourself and the field. Guys were tearing themselves up while they passed me the last 10K and 15K. I've done it before, raced to grab every second I can, but today I got to “look at it from a distance” (kind of) and it was crazy to see what we look like, burying ourselves and trying so incredibly hard for such a small or zero tangible reward. It's horrible and beautiful.
Maybe I'll be back to Kona to give it a best ever effort, a real crack. Probably I will be back to give it a real 100% crack. Things got pretty real today regardless.
For now and forever, I'm so happy with my decisions and the opportunity and the results for this, my first Kona :) ”
The Pointy End
Here’s the last story. There were lots of guys around me for the first 2.5 hours of riding. I kept riding up to a group, thinking that I would “catch that group and then you can ride with them for a while”. But I would get up to the group, they would be riding too slow, so I would move on. I did this again and again until about 3 hours in. Then there were no more groups.
3 hours and about 65 miles in, my body felt good, no aches or bad tight spots, I was hydrated and fueled. I wasn’t sure if I was riding well or not, though. My power meter was showing very low numbers (false readings, in hindsight). I didn’t know ‘where the race is’. Am I in ‘the race’, or is ‘the race’ 5 miles ahead of me? Where are the guys I should be riding with? There’s nobody around.. What’s that mean!?
By hour 4, about 90 miles in, I figured it out. There was nobody around because I had rode up to ‘the pointy end’ of the race. There were no groups up here – just single guys riding hard and fast by themselves. It turns out that I was in about 35th place. It took me an entire hour to realize that I ‘winning’ because I had no intention or expectation of doing so. I had swam/biked up to the front 2% of the best field in the world, and it was totally unexpected and completely awesome.
Once upon a time, I did the same thing at Ironman Wisconsin – I got off the bike at the front of the race, without any intention or expectation of doing so. I did that at Ironman Wisconsin 2 years ago, and then ran slow for just an okay finish. The next year, I raced with the intention of winning, and I got off the bike at the front and stayed there. Those Wisconsin races and this first Kona were all stellar days and great memories. I hope that someday I’ll give Kona another crack, and that I’ll be prepared to get up to and stay at ‘the pointy end’.
It’s been a great year of racing. What a chapter of life – racing at home, traveling, racing in front of friends and family, sharing it all through this blog, training hard and having fun with teammates day after day under the Colorado sun… It’s been outstanding. Thank you to everyone that has been part of it, everyone that made it happen, everyone that shared the ups and downs and experiences of the year. Everyone that read the blogs, sent the emails, the texts and the prayers. It is worthwhile and special because of you.