The Dreams and Nightmares of Triathlon

For the majority of triathletes the ultimate dream is to race the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Kona is known to be hardest race in triathlon. Just to qualify you have to complete an Ironman (3.8km swim/180km bike/42.2km run) and finish on the podium as each age group only has 1 or 2 qualifying slots.

Kona is not the hardest course but the combination of high winds, high humidity, high temperatures make it the ultimate challenge. Even the top professionals regularly succumb to the race and no one is ever competitive on debut.

Qualifying for Kona is on my to do list but I am yet to even start an Ironman. I have entered 3 but for various reasons never made it to the start line, so that dream remains in the pipeline. However, June 2020 (now June 2021 like everything else) gave me the opportunity to get a taste of Kona. The Ironman 70.3 Hawaii is held just to the north, at Waikoloa, and includes the top half of the Ironman bike course.

This excited me for a number of reasons:

  1. It is not unlikely I will never qualify for Kona so the opportunity to race on the famous course would be epic.
  2. When (if) I qualify for Kona the experience of racing the course and conditions would be invaluable.
  3. The race has a 150 slots to the 70.3 World Championships (great opportunity to qualify) and 25 to the Ironman World Championships (highly unlikely), but as hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.
  4. I am very bored of Covid ruining my plans.
  5. Last but not least, who doesn’t want to spend a week in Hawaii!!

The Build Up

Prior to travelling I looked at historic results and I was confident of a top 3-5 even if I didn’t have my best race. Exciting times!

I was in great shape, for once 100% fit, although probably not quite as fit as I had been in Daytona. Swimming had been a struggle as I’m limited to 30 minute slots; my bike should have improved significantly and while I had been unable to run for the first three months of the year I was feeling confident despite not being fully up to speed.

Logistically though this trip was a nightmare!! Due to Covid travel requirements I had to leave a week before the race which is a lot longer than I usually allow. The upside of this was getting longer to acclimatise and having the chance to enjoy the area. It also wasn’t too costly as an old client of mine was kindly renting me his villa (mates rates) which just so happened to be at the race venue. Very jammy but for once I would be staying in luxury without breaking the bank.

To avoid quarantine in Hawaii you’re required to get a negative test from specific partners of each airline. As I was flying United I had to get an American postal test. There are approved testers in Vancouver, but only for Canadian airlines so they don’t qualify (stupid system). Given the postal aspect, the 72hr time limit and distance to travel getting all my ducks in a row was rather stressful.

Additionally, I have a new bike which requires a specific bike bag as you cant take the handlebars off. This had to be shipped from the UK which proved incredibly difficult (special thanks to my mum for taking the reins on that one). The cherry on top was it getting lost between our house and the UPS depot for a few days, unbelievable! Luckily that was soon resolved and I was all set.

As it turned out I had stressed for no reason, the journey went like clockwork and I didn’t even get charged for flying my bike, result!! (flying a bike is always a lottery) However, having avoided all the issues I had foreseen I managed to shoot myself in the foot. As they checked my bike at security I realised it was missing its pedals. Moron!! It turns out there are issues with having too many bikes. Luckily, as I hate stress when travelling, I had arrived 3 hrs early so had time to taxi home to collect them.

At last I was Hawaii bound and everything was in place!!

Pre Race

Sunday – Confidence 10, Comfort 8, Panic 0

I arrived 9PM Sunday night and was instantly hit by the humidity but didn’t give it much thought. The airport was chaotic and finding a taxi wasn’t easy but eventually I arrived, checked my bike had survived before collapsing exhausted.

Monday – Confidence 4, Comfort 4, Panic 8

First thing I walked to the shops as needed food (Hawaii is expensive) and in the 20mins it took I was already feeling the heat, running was going to be brutal. This was the first chink in my confidence and comfort level.

Next up was a 90 min bike ride. I had only ridden my new bike once before and I knew this was a risk. I hit the famous Queen K highway and the infamous winds. I was all over the place. I could barely ride my bike. It quickly became clear I shouldn’t have brought my deep front wheel. I also learnt I would need to ride in glasses rather than my helmet visor, less aerodynamic but I needed the airflow to avoid overheating.

I returned in a panic. My expectations had collapsed. I couldn’t see how I would stay upright on the bike, it hadn’t even been that windy, and that was before a half marathon when I had overheated walking to the shops. The only consolation was I hadn’t fallen off yet and the course is beautiful in a barren sort of way.

The afternoon was easier as just involved a sea swim. The location for the swim was spectacular and it went well despite being a little rusty in waves and salty water. I just hoped I would make it as I hadn’t swum in 9 months.

I had been incredibly naïve in my preparation and expectation management. In just 24hrs I had very bluntly learnt why Hawaii is the hardest race on the circuit!

In the build up I had also received multiple warnings on how easy it is to get sunburnt in Hawaii. Given this I worked hard to make sure the hardest parts to suncream were covered but in the process missed some easy spots, oops!

Tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday – Confidence 6, Comfort 4, Panic 5

I woke up Tuesday morning still pretty shaken about how my expectations had gone from expecting a top 3 to worrying I wouldn’t finish. My ego had been sufficiently and maybe deservedly flattened!

It was a double run day and I was becoming increasingly grateful the Covid requirements had made me arrive a week before the race, rather than the 2 days I had planned!

The runs actually went well. I felt strong and while my race pace will be down due to the conditions I felt if I get off the bike I would run well.

The concern on the run was the impact of the heat/humidity. It was hot, but manageable when running with the breeze, but as soon as I stopped I would overheat. After both runs I immediately ran my head under the tap to cool down, followed by a cold bath. I figured at the finish I would just keep going until I hit the sea!! Hydration and keeping cool on the run would be more important than ever.

I spent the evening trying to arrange a replacement wheel with the support crew, Lauren in Vancouver. Unfortunately the logistics didn’t work but I was beginning to relax a little as figured it’s the the same for everyone and I hadn’t heard about everyone getting blown off their bikes. To get a 70.3 World Championships slot I probably didn’t need to be at my best so slow and steady would be the game plan.

I had concluded that an Ironman in these conditions is stupid and it’s amazing how easy the professionals make it look.

Wednesday – Confidence 7, Comfort 5, Panic 3

I took the bike out again via the local bike shop to see if they had a wheel I could use. I felt more comfortable even though it was windier than Monday. The Queen K runs straight through the lava fields and is very exposed as the wind comes howling across. The shop were great but on a cost/comfort analysis I decided to go with the wheel I had but useful to know there was a plan B.

I rode for an hour and while there were a few ‘oh s**t’ moments I felt a lot more comfortable and spent the majority in the TT position. Riding aerodynamic bikes in strong winds just takes some getting used to. One thing that’s for certain is I’m going to have to concentrate for the entire bike, which is not one of my strengths!

Despite this my confidence was slowly returning as figured it was unlikely I would physically be blown off, I would just have a few moments that would scare the bejesus out of me!

I was also feeling the benefit of a long acclimatization period and beginning to appreciate what an amazing place this would be for a holiday. It’s just a stupid place for a triathlon!

Thursday – Confidence 5, Comfort 7, Panic 2

Thursday was meant to be a day off with my only task being registration. However, due to my nerves I went for another short ride on what felt like the windiest day yet. It was perfect for morale as I felt more comfortable even if I wasn’t feeling confident.

One of the main issues was that the roads aren’t closed for this race and being overtaken by lorries in the wind is terrifying. It is similar to sailing in the lee of a tanker and the resulting lull, expect on a bike travelling at up to 60kph it is a little more interesting!

I had accepted that on numerous occasions I would think I was going to crash but in reality you don’t so be brave, it’s just a horrible feeling.

Registration went smoothly and I got suckered in to some shopping although for once I found something useful, a top that is perfect for sailing and fishing.

Friday – Confidence 8, Comfort 9, Panic 0

After a week of turmoil, panic attacks and mental breakdowns I was actually feeling remarkably calm. I felt comfortable about the race, confident I could give a good performance if I didn’t make any mistakes and held up in the heat.

A quick run and final bike check went smoothly. I had to check my bike and bags at a specific time (Covid protocols) and I wouldn’t have access to my bike or run bags on race morning so needed to get it right.

The challenges of racing in Hawaii are different to other races. You can’t just race as hard as you can as the conditions are so draining. Given this pacing, hydration and fueling would be essential. Any mistakes would be brutally punished by an explosion or cramping on the run.

By now my panic had gone and been replaced by the usual pre race nerves and I had a laugh with Billy about my meltdown. The experience had been a steep learning curve and an important one in developing as an athlete.

I could tell I was relaxed as before bed I noticed a smoky smell and the sky had clouded over. A quick search revealed there was a bush fire on the far side of the island. Fingers crossed it cleared up as would be a shame to race in the smoke but I was calm as it wouldn’t change anything.

Lets race!!

Racing on the Big Island

I slept well and woke feeling calm to a clear night. Given the spacing out of starts it was an especially early start. Everything went as planned, there was just a lot of waiting around as I was out of transition by 5 and didn’t start till 6:45.

My age group, 30-34, was the fourth wave to start. I took this as a positive as meant I would have people to chase all day, especially helpful on the run.

The US national anthem was sung, then the Hawaiian anthem, then 5 long blasts on a conch shell and the first athletes were off.

22 minutes later it was my turn. Straight out through the port channel and into a nice rhythm. Having fewer athletes and well spaced out starts meant I swam unimpeded pretty much the whole way. No fighting required.

There really wasn’t much to report as I swam alone and paced it pretty much perfectly for my swim fitness. The only challenge was the long leg back was directly in to the sun and I couldn’t see anything. I took the approach that if I followed the other swimmers, who I could just about see, I would be ok. After the race I spoke to a number of people and not one had been able to see but had taken the same strategy. The blind leading the blind but it worked out in the end.

I came out of the water feeling good and knowing I couldn’t have gone much faster. We had to run through the crowds along a path to transition and I was weaving my way past people as a lot don’t take transition seriously. I might have got a little carried away though as my foot slid out from under me and I nearly had a major wipe out but just managed to maintain my balance and escape on to the grass.

It’s worth highlighting the importance of transition and why you should take it seriously. I was in and out in 3 mins 50 with one of the quickest times. The majority of people were 6 or 7 minutes. This is free time from being organised and efficient. Not going to complain if people want to give me time though.

I always start the bike a bit strong but I think that’s natural as it takes time to settle. There was a quick turn around before heading on to the Queen K highway where the real work began.

I was straight in to catching the age group in front but got the occasional reminder that my bike still needs a lot of work as people came flying past me and off in to the distance.

The first quarter of the course is rolling and the wind didn’t appear to be too bad although I did sit up a couple of times. The hardest sections were where the road cut through a lava mound as while the wind was coming from the East in these wind tunnels it would hit you from all sides in very quick succession.

I got to the turn towards Hawi in good shape and on target. Following the turn there was a downhill with a crosswind which made me very uncomfortable, I even touched my brakes. I hit 65.3 kph which with the cross wind was just too much for me.

Then it was the long gradual climb up to Hawi which is known to be the windiest part of the course. On this occasion this wasn’t the case apart from one moment when I was hit by a hurricane! By complete luck at that moment I was sat up so a lot more stable so survived.

The turn around at the top of the hill took forever to appear but eventually it was time to fly back, mostly downhill with a tail/crosswind. I was still feeling great, I was on track for nutrition, taking water at every aid station, half to drink, half to cool my body down and still catching more people than were catching me.

One area I need to work on is holding the TT position. I can just about hold it for 90km but not even close in these conditions. The difference between being down or sat up is about 2mph. This really adds up over the race so is an area I know I can work on. Again that is free time.

Coming in to the last 10km I overtook a guy I had been riding behind for a while as I had more in my legs to give. However, I then had one of my dreaded lapses in concentration (it is hard after 2 1/2 hrs of cycling hard) and I hit something on the road. I didn’t see it but guessed it was a larger stone. 30 seconds later my front wheel went flat. I can’t be certain the bump is what caused it but it seems likely.

I stopped to change the tube as places started to leak away from me. Being a new wheel the tire was very tight but eventually I got it done and as I used the gas cylinder a bike mechanic vehicle turned up. For some reason the cylinder didn’t put that much pressure in. Had the mechanic not been there I would have just got on with it but he had a pump so took it away to top it up. This was probably sensible but definitely slowed me down by another minute.

With the wheel back on he gave me a Tour de France style push and I was on my way.

I hadn’t gone another km when my back wheel went flat. I couldn’t believe it. This time I didn’t have a spare and wasn’t going to hope the van was following so I just eased up and tried to limp the last 3km home. This was the most awful experience. My wheels are expensive and carbon and do not like running on flat tires. Every time I hit even the smallest stone it made the most horrible noise. Post race I found a staple in my tire so that one definitely wasn’t my fault.

It felt like forever but eventually I limped in to transition.

Despite the punctures being a downer I was mentally in a good place and ready to deliver a good run (my strongest leg). A podium was out of the window but I was still chasing a worlds slot and I also have a personal goal of doing a run where no one overtakes me!

Off the wheels I could get back to racing and was speedily out of transition. The run course wasn’t busy but I pushed the pace out of transition and found myself overtaking people. I was running a little fast but was feeling awesome. I get the feeling people judge me as I go past as the idiot that’s going to blow up but it’s the same as when I have to let the super cyclists cycle off in to the sunset.

The run course had been inaccessible prior to the race as it is entirely within the Fairmont golf course. This meant I had no idea of what to expect. It turned out to be a mixture of tarmac and grass but a lot of small hills as we ran over bunkers or under the roads. This made settling in to a constant speed impossible.

It was 3 laps with an aid station roughly every mile. I made sure I got two waters on the first table, another water on the last table and a cup of ice. The water was for a mixture of drinking and over the head, ice went down my front and back.

I finished the first lap in great shape. I was on target pace with some in the bank after starting fast. I felt I would be able to hold this pace till the end but at the back of my mind I was aware there is a reason these conditions are so hard. Make mistakes and you get punished. So I stayed on top of my hydration, nutrition and temperature where I could.

For the most part I was flying past people and no one was even close to holding my pace, I don’t think many of them were in my age group though. However, half way round my second lap a guy came past me making it look effortless. In my defense he was on a different lap so I don’t know if that counts as being overtaken, it’s more a case of being lapped but that is probably worse!

Moving in to the last lap I still felt good. Tired but not overheating and my legs weren’t getting heavy yet. By this point I knew the course and which bits were slow, fast, hot or windy which made a big difference as I could be tactical about where I pushed. I had also worked out that ice in the arm pit was a better location than just down the front as the blood is closer to the surface.

One of hardest challenges, and reasons its a slow run, is a lot of the course is on grass. This isn’t normal grass either, this is golf grass which is like a sponge!! Every step feels like it is absorbing and sucking the energy from your legs.

For the last couple of miles I just targeted the person in front until I caught them and then moved on.

With 1500m to go I caught a guy who I guessed was in my age group but he looked tired. I went past and put in an extra burst to try and drop him but he came with me. I didn’t have much left but was confident I would drop him eventually but it was harder than I thought.

400m to go I pushed on again and this time he couldn’t come with me. 100m to go as I entered the finish shute there was one last guy ahead of me. I gave it everything but he heard me, looked over his shoulder and also gave it everything. We had a sprint finish but I couldn’t quite catch him. I did though push him hard enough he collapsed in a heap after the finish line. (This was quite a funny sequence of photos)

We shared a laugh as we were in different age groups so burying ourselves didn’t matter. What was annoying though was the guy 400m behind beat me by 8 seconds. Had I not been there to drag him along for 800m I would have been one position higher but that’s the way it goes.

Crossing the finish line was a huge relief and added to by having Mike Reilly announce our arrival. (the voice of Ironman).

Having finished I desperately looked around for some shade as I was seriously overheating. I eventually found a small group of athletes hiding under a palm tree and they kindly shared a leaf of shade. What a spectacular race but shade at the finish was lacking, I was melting.

I finished 38th (10th in 30-34) in 4:57:42. Swim 36:19 (146th), Bike 2:43:27 (127th), Run 1:30:59 (8th). I calculated conservatively the punctures cost me 10minutes which would have moved me up to 19th and 6th respectively.

Post Race

Having eventually got my temperature down from the dangerous highs I collected my stuff and found my post race meal, an excellent beef sandwich. I found a proper piece of shade to enjoy it and cool off further before going in search of information about the World Championship slots.

It turned out our age group had 4 Kona slots and 14 70.3 World Champs slots. I had a 70.3 slot but Kona was a long shot. Had I not had the bike issues I would have been first or second roll down which would still be unlikely as not many people turn down Kona slots. It was frustrating as there wont be many better chances to qualify but c’est la vie, I got what I came for.

I walked back through the venue and it’s impossible not to get excited by the atmosphere and supporting other athletes. I collected my bike and it turned out the front tube I had replaced also had a puncture, this one was probably my fault by pinching the inner tube when changing it. Luckily it had got me to the end.

The brutal side of Ironman was on show as I returned home. There were people still coming off the bike but they were being timed out by an official and had to retire. This must be one of the worst feelings, having battled the wind and heat for over 5 hrs to be told you cant continue. Later from the villa I could see people still running who weren’t going to finish but were clearly still going for their own personal goals. This is mental toughness. 8 hrs in and the course would be very lonely with very few other athletes and most the supporters probably gone. I am always amazed by the strength of character of the people fighting the cutoff times. That is way harder than my race experience.

I had planned a celebratory dinner but Hawaii is expensive and my tummy hadn’t completely settled post the gels I fuel the race on so I decided on sunset beach cocktail instead. Hawaii is spectacular! Nothing more needs to be said.

The Hawaiian Holiday

Sunday

Canada required a negative Covid test to return so I gave myself a few days holiday post race. Unfortunately car hire super expensive (as are taxis) so my holiday options were limited. It also turned out taxis are hard to find so the majority of the day was taken up by my Covid test. I didn’t miss much as on the way back it had the audacity to rain!! Having returned I relaxed and let my poor body recover as my arms and legs hurt!

I would have liked to spend more time on the beach/exploring but the sun is so strong I would melt. This meant most of my time was spent hiding indoors reading or watching TV. It was a shame as there are so many great things to do on the Big Island but I guess I will just have to come back.

Monday

Monday’s activity was snorkeling. On one of my warm up swims another athlete mentioned he had seen a turtle and I was so jealous. So for my 2 hr outdoor window I went hunting turtles.

After 30 mins of only seeing fish I decided to head back. As I turned around I nearly swam in to two turtles!! How long had they been sneaking around behind me.

I swam with them for a while before returning home feeling chuffed. The more time I spent on the island the more I fell in love with it. It is such a special place and a great climate because it’s nearly always windy. Unfortunately it’s just not somewhere you should go alone.

Tuesday

My last day in paradise started with an easy run. My legs still hurt but with my next 14 days being in quarantine I had to make the most of it.

The rest of the day was packing, tidying and one final swim at the beach where again a turtle snuck up behind me. I had no idea they were so sneaky!

Ironman World Championships

I had an outside shot at a Ironman World Championships slot but that appears to have passed. I am disappointed but this is also not the year to go as the event will be limited from the usual experience. I would also have felt a bit of a fraud having qualified having never done an Ironman. That being said if it was offered a slot I would snap my own hand off to get it.

I did get the 70.3 World Championships slot I was after. I am thrilled I will be going to my second World Champs in St George. This is where my first Ironman will be in May 2022, so offers a great opportunity to get a feel for the course. Additionally the next two Worlds are in New Zealand (I’ve been) and Finland (I’ve done the race) so I am not sure when I would next go.

Returning to the Big Island

I obviously want to come back for the big race. However, I will definitely come back to the Big Island as it is spectacular. It reminds me a lot of Mauritius and there is so much to do that I was unable to do this time: hiking, fishing, volcanoes, beaches, restaurants the list just goes on.

Additionally Lauren, who was unable to join (essential worker who can’t quarantine) has been so jealous throughout so I will probably have to return with her. Just hope she doesn’t mind if I do a triathlon at the same time ;)!!

Final Note

I feel I need to highlight my special thanks to coach Billy, Lauren and my mum for providing support and solutions in the build up to this trip and in particular during my meltdown. I was genuinely very concerned about the bike. So much so that I bought insurance mid trip as figured it was pretty likely I would crash (probably should have had that anyway). They offered their support, solutions and talked me through the low moments. All athletes have moments where they need their support team and mine went the extra mile for this race.

1 thought on “The Dreams and Nightmares of Triathlon

  1. Nicholas Robertshaw June 16, 2021 — 3:41 am

    This always amazes me, well done Richie!!

    Liked by 1 person

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