During the final few minutes before landing on the Big Island of Hawaii (Kona) you can’t help but feel like you’re touching down on another planet.
Kona is terra firma in its rawest form, hot black lava fields as far as the eye can see, with a tiny sliver of road (The Queen K) cutting its way through the harsh surroundings. The plane doors open, you take a step out, and like a punch in the face you’re hit with the humidity and heat.
Training was at a bare minimum after a recent crash left me with a torn adductor (thigh muscle), heavy concussion and a fractured left foot. The doctor had also warned me of strenuous activity as a result of the concussion, but at face value all these risks and symptoms have passed. Besides, it’s not like Kona is going to be strenuous or anything.
After I land I make a visit to the Ali’i Health Centre for a cortisone injection in my foot, and feel like a million bucks. Even though I’m carrying some ailments into the race, three weeks earlier I was less than 50/50 to start, so needless to say I’m over the moon to have the opportunity to take my place I had worked so hard to earn.
If I get six hours sleep the night before any event I’m happy. but for the toughest physical and mental exam of my life I manage eight. Turns out I need every minute. I make my way to the body marking tent (because apparently adults can’t be trusted with a wet flannel). I stand among hundreds of other athletes under the temporary marquee, waiting to be called upon.
The sun has not even risen, but the sweat is already making its way down my forehead. Around to my bike where I discover my front tyre is flat. Easily changed and back to the family and support crew for photos, one last "thank you" and "goodbye". My support crew is seven strong from Australia, with special shirts made up, hats, flags you name it. I’ve said it before, Ironman is a team sport.
Although I'm Australian, the rendition of the USA National Anthem is spine tingling. Over 1,000 age-group men start to congregate around the swim entry gates. I let off a few “moos”. I couldn’t help but feel we were like cattle waiting to be loaded for slaughter. To ensure a good position I enter the water at the first opportunity and make my way to the swim start line.
I’m in between the TYR floating apparatus and the cannon. A constant parade of paddling surfers keeps us in line until the cannon fires. For the first two minutes I don’t think I can ever remember being more terrified. I get a horrible start, and am quickly five or six deep. I can’t make a single stroke without impediment; it’s like Melbourne all over again, only worse.
After three minutes of exhausting water boxing I make a 90 degree exit stage right. In five minutes I reckon I've traveled 300m forward, it’s extraordinary. In clean water I manage to compose myself and find a rhythm. I salvage a 1:01 swim time. A week earlier I swam a 57.12 in the Ho’ala annual swim at well under ‘race pace’. It’s absolute carnage.
A slower swim time than I would like puts me through T1 with the masses and barely a spare seat in the house. The clever unlocking system on my swim skin makes for a quick change and onto the bike.
The first 20km is simply jostling for position and a parade through the crowds before heading out onto the Queen K. Mind you, the steady climb up Kuakini Hwy should not be underestimated.
I use the descent back down Kuakini to take in some nutrition and liquids. The Kona bike course has been reviewed and blogged to death, so I’ll just confirm it is very hot and windy in both directions.
The ascent up to Hawi is where I probably learn the most about my first time in Kona. My climb is not steady; it is a ‘stepped’ climb with flat sections and even some downhills. Downhills on the ascent to Hawi, go figure!
Following a very brief tailwind section coming out of Mauna Kea, I work my way back into town producing an overall bike time of 5:10. Just like in Mt. Tremblant, the penalty boxes are standing room only, and I’m happy to yet again keep a clean sheet. Here’s an idea for Ironman or the WTC: at the conclusion of any World Championship race they should publish the penalty book they keep with bib numbers and names. Food for thought.
As always I drop down a few gears in the closing stages of the bike leg to ensure some quick feet through T2. For the first time in Ironman racing I go for sunscreen application in T2, I can feel my skin burning on the bike and still have 3+ hours ahead of me.
Plus, I sport a 10cm scar down the centre of my back from having a melanoma removed earlier in the year, so my attitude is slightly different these days. Add 15 seconds to your finishing time or risk cancer, hmmm?
Starting the run leg I feel good, I’m eight minutes over my anticipated overall time, but a solid run leg could claw most of that back. Question is, how long will the cortisone hold out? With so much going on, punishing humidity and human carnage already starting along the Ali’I drive section of the run, I simply focus on my pace.
My pre race strategy is to simply get to the Queen K having averaged 4:15km pace and then take it to my ‘natural’ 4:00km pace, with plenty in the tank for the back-end of the marathon.
For the first 12km I hold my position in the field and take my pace up as planned. Within 6km I’ve worked through around 12 blokes in my age group, and feel great. After a little push up Palani hill and onto the Queen K in what can only be best described as my left foot feeling like it's stuck in a pot of boiling water, I’m forced to a complete stop.
I’m not crying, but the pain forces a number of salty tears from my eye ducts. This wasn’t factored into my hydration plan! In anticipation for this type of event occurring I pop a few painkillers. All the ground I’ve made up is quickly given back. My foot has simply packed it in, taken its ball and gone home. If was a racing horse, I’d have been looking over my shoulder for the green screen.
The 20km to 38km stages of the run is simply mind over matter, I know I’m going to finish but I still want to salvage some sort of a result. During the run down and along the Energy Lab I take numerous mental notes and images in my mind. I know I’ll be back here again, so I want to learn from the experience. Get my “money’s worth”.
I can’t say I have to ‘dig deep’ during the run, because I relate that to the cardiovascular side of racing, however I certainly have to suffer through some excruciating pain, much like the other 2,000-odd competitors. I finish with a 3:22 run split.
You hear about it and read about it but until you’ve staggered that final section along Ali’i drive and up the finishing chute, there really are no words to describe the atmosphere and feeling in completing the Hawaiian Ironman. It’s so much more than the moment; it’s the journey to get there. Not even the 9 hours and 40 minutes that preceded it, the years and years of blood, sweat and tears. The greatest part of it all is that it’s not once in a lifetime. I’ll be back; in 2014 I simply wasn’t good enough.
A few important thanks need to be said: to my beautiful wife Alishia, my Kona support crew Mum, Dad, Linda, Mark, Erin and Sam for willing me through the darkest parts of the race. To my sponsors Anytime Fitness Hope Island / Upper Coomera and International Protein – this is just the beginning. To everyone else I have trained with, laughed with and hurt with – thank you. Last but not least, thanks to the emergency team at Burlingame Hospital California, you life savers.