2017 Kona Ironman World Championship

Kona was an unforgettable experience. The race was incredible to be a part of, especially with so many of my teammates there to share the experience with. The trip itself was an amazing time with my wife – some time off like we really haven’t had the chance to have in over four years. In fact it was all a bit much to put into one post, so this is just the race report itself. The rest of the trip will come separately.

Team Every Man Jack at Kona. Photo: Talbot Cox

My race went well, finishing as the 26th amateur, 60th overall, and 10th American male. That came after coming out of the water in 854th place, putting together a solid bike, and then turning in the 2nd fastest amateur run for the day. The support we received as a team throughout the event from our sponsors, family, and friends (as if the support during training isn’t enough) was unbelievable and a huge boost throughout the day and the typical rough Kona conditions.

Pre-race

I flew into Hawaii a full week early, partly to acclimate to the heat and humidity and partly because it was much cheaper that way (I finally cashed in some of my airline miles I’ve built up from work!). As exciting as an extra week in Hawaii sounds, most of that time was spent working remotely from a room with no AC.

Sweating + working on a laptop don’t mix well, but at least the view was good!
Ok, maybe I can stop working and soak it in just for a bit…

The week also allowed me to get familiar with the course and the area. Six days before the race we drove part way to Hawi and biked the rest (a bit further than I wanted to go that close to the race, but the effort was low). Unfortunately the legendary winds were practically non-existent that day, so I did not get the chance to experience them before the race.

At the turnaround in Hawi. Photo: Talbot Cox
Patrick Lange, who would become the World Champion and new course record holder, apparently had a similar ride that day. Photo: Talbot Cox

The other thing I’m glad I arrived early for was to experience some of the swim. I had never done an ocean swim before, and the choppy water was a bit of a concern for me. My first time in, though, was by far the coolest swim I’ve ever done. If I could swim there every day, I’d enjoy it. It was like swimming in an aquarium: tropical fish, coral, a sea turtle, a giant pool of fish that stretched as far as I could see in the crystal clear water. I was somewhat worried that during the race I would be like the kid playing outfield who gets distracted by butterflies and four leaf clovers.

I just finished swimming, and this smile is genuine! Photo: Talbot Cox
This is when we get to play with the fish, I mean train, right? Photo: Talbot Cox

The best part of getting there early was the extra time with my teammates and the people there to support us. Our team is largely scattered across the country (and Canada) so opportunities to actually hang out don’t come very often, and even less often for the people who spend the year supporting us while we train.

The team is a lot more than just those of us competing, and nowhere was this more evident than at Kona.
Felt has been a tremendous support all year, and even upgraded my bike with some of their new components. Photo: Talbot Cox

Jessi arrived two days before the race, and I moved from the team house to a place with her just in time to make final preparations. I was thrilled to have her there, both for us getting the chance to experience Hawaii together and for having her there for the race. Unfortunately for her, she had a couple of days where she also had to live through the no air conditioning rule.

The view from the place Jessi and I were at wasn’t too shabby either… with or without the bike.

One thing I don’t enjoy about triathlons is the logistics of making sure everything is ready for race day: the bike, transition bags, morning gear, etc. I got everything ready without much stress, though, got it all checked in, and was able to relax the rest of the day before the race! Even the gear check-in at Kona was a bit of an event in itself.

Sonora racked and ready to go!
My bag’s in there. Somewhere.

Swim

It’s no secret that I dread the swim. That’s even when it’s in calm, fresh water with a wetsuit and a rolling or wave start from shore. I headed out to the deep water starting line about 10 minutes before the start, searching for a spot in the mass of people where I could avoid getting kicked or smacked in the face as everyone treaded water shoulder to shoulder, trying to stay afloat without the added buoyancy of a wetsuit.

Lining up for the mass start. Photo: Talbot Cox

I looked down the course, which disappeared into the distance. Every other Ironman swim course I had done had been multiple loops, and the sheer length of an out and back course was an intimidating sight. I wasn’t sure which sounded worse: getting started or continuing to tread water. I didn’t have long to consider this before the horn inevitably sounded.

The mass of people started moving forward, everyone jostling for position. It was impossible to take a stroke and have my arm actually pass through the water without landing on another body. As people literally swam over the top of other people, my immediate objective became to just avoid getting kicked or elbowed in the face. On the plus side, I didn’t have to worry about getting distracted by fish – the turbulence in the water made it impossible to see down below.

Swim start. Photo: Talbot Cox

Then, with still about an hour of swimming left, I felt the saltwater-induced chafing start in my armpits. Every stroke I felt it get worse, but there was nothing I could do but put it aside and continue. I have pictures of the aftermath, but I’ll spare you the sight. Let’s just say that I had to shave my armpits the next day to keep hair from sticking in the wounds and for a week I had to sleep with a towel under me to avoid getting blood on the sheets.

But back to the race. Gradually, the crowd spread out and there was room to actually attempt to swim. Staying with a pack and drafting is apparently an enormous benefit in swimming, so I tried to strike a balance between staying with others but having enough space to not get kicked in the face. Some run-ins were still inevitable, though. At one point I was put in a head lock and pushed backwards, and at another my watch was grabbed and stopped.

I continued on, feeling like I was actually doing fairly well, but having no feedback at all on my pace since my watch had been stopped. Getting back within sight of the pier was a huge relief, and I tried to push in to the swim finish. I looked at the clock when I came out and mistakenly thought I had swam about a 1:03, quite happy with the outcome. It turned out that I actually swam a 1:07:51, coming out of the water as the 854th male and already about 20 minutes behind the leaders.

The first part of my swim, before my watch was grabbed and stopped about one fifth of the way through.

Bike

I quickly made my way through transition. Helmet on, swimskin off, flying mount successful, and I was off. I felt good when I got on the bike (thanks Terrel Hale and The Bicycle Place!), and it was time to climb my way out of the hole I had dug for myself during the swim.

All the advice I had received, though, told me that most people go out way too hard on the bike at Kona. I tried to stay conservative initially, wanting to ensure I could stay strong for the entire bike leg. It was difficult, as I knew I had a lot of ground to make up and I was getting occasionally passed, which is not something I’m used to on the bike (more a result of my terrible swimming than my stellar biking).

Heading out on the bike. Photo: Stefan Irion

I continued at a steady pace, heading out through the fields of lava rock towards Hawi. Overall, I was continually moving up in my usual game of catch-up, but there were a few people I ended up playing leapfrog with and a few that went by that I seemingly had no chance of staying with. The drafting didn’t seem as bad as it was at 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship – Chattanooga, but it was definitely still an issue.

I was still a bit unsure of my time and place since my watch had been stopped during the swim. As we approached the turnaround near the midway point I could start to get a better feel for my position as other riders, and in particular my teammates, came by. I was not in as good of a spot as I hoped, but I was within range of where I needed to be.

The winds were definitely present, but they were not as bad as I had heard and probably not as bad as they usually are. My main concern at that point was that my power was about 10% below what I had planned on. My speed seemed alright, though. I’m still not sure whether something was wrong with my power meter, the heat was causing me to both lose power and go faster at a lower power (hot air causes slightly less drag), or if I was having a bit of an off day and could have gone faster.

Heading back from Hawi.

In any case, I continued to race at the effort I felt was sustainable until I made the turn back onto the Queen K with about 34 miles left. At that point I opened up a bit, or at least I did what felt like opening up. When I looked at my data afterwards, my power mostly stayed the same throughout the bike, but most people seemed to start to burn out a bit at that point in the race. As a result, I began moving up more quickly.

I came off the bike in 4:58:41, managing to pass over 500 people and move up to 336th place. I still had a lot of work to do, though. Fortunately, the hot and difficult run is the part where I was hoping I could make some pretty big gains.

Run

As I came out of transition I glanced at the clock. 6:13. Based on past results I figured I would need to run about a 2:50 to climb onto my age group podium. I was feeling pretty good, so I took off down Ali’i Drive with that target in mind. The crowd support was incredible, and EMJ friends and family seemed to be along every mile of the course. What spurred me along even more, though, was the knowledge that everyone in front of me was actually in front of me, as opposed to races with wave starts, where I never know who’s in front and who just started earlier. I got a little burst of energy from everyone I passed, most of all by the guy who said “you f*@#er” as I went by (I turned and looked incredulously, then continued along up a nice little hill).

Photo: Jessi Kelly

It didn’t take long to realize something, though: it was really really hot. And humid. With no shade or any of the wind experienced on the bike course. And unlike most other days I had been there it was sunny and bright. I decided a 2:50 pace was probably unsustainable in those conditions, so a few miles in I dialed it back to about a 2:55 pace. I thought that was a good balance between blow up risk and podium chances. At every aid station I was dousing my head in ice water sponges and/or putting ice down my jersey. I was double fisting waters, drinking as much as my body could process, and staying on top of my endurolytes. Still, the sauna was inescapable.

Photo: Mike Vulanich

As I made the climb up Palani Rd back to the Queen K I felt the first hints of fatigue hit me. I knew it would be hitting everyone else there as well, though. It’s important to remember that everyone else is hurting just as bad. It often comes down to who deals with that pain the best. I dealt with it pretty well all the way until the turn around at the Energy Lab, after which I had another climb back to the Queen K. I got a momentary burst of energy from an aid station that had enormous, car wash style, ice cold sponges. When I pressed that on my head I made noises that I’m pretty sure would make this post NSFW if it included a sound clip.

Shortly after reaching the Queen K I caught up to my team’s frontrunner, Greg Lindquist. Catching him (and the rest of my incredibly talented teammates) was undoubtedly quite an accomplishment itself, but I still had work to do.

Unfortunately my body and mind were both beginning to rebel. I had fallen off the 2:55 pace. I thought I could still go sub 3, but I thought I had fallen out of podium contention and lost some motivation as a result. To make matters worse, the Queen K somehow seemed uphill both ways! The whole way out I was thinking how nice it would be to coast back down on the return. Instead I found myself climbing again.

I somewhat held it together and at least stayed under a 7:30 pace for the remaining miles, leaving a wake of sponges and ice water behind me. I finally came back to Palani Rd and flew down the hill. At that point I just wanted to soak in my last moments at Kona. Someone passed me, I think for the first time on the run. I didn’t even care anymore. I didn’t want a dead sprint to the finish, I wanted an enjoyable cruise down that storied chute.

I saw after the race that my face reflected my physical feeling more than my mental feeling, but I was enjoying the moment!

I came across the line at what my watch told me was just under a 3 hour run, which turned out to actually be just over a 3 hour run (but top 10 Kona runs ever according to Strava! #stravaoritdidnthappen). I was a Kona finisher! I managed to stay on my feet and avoid the wheelchair, but I did end up in medical for dehydration. I had been drinking as much as I could, but my body simply couldn’t process the input at the same rate as the output.

I’m not sure where the weather station used for this is, but it was definitely warmer than 84 and not cloudy or windy.

Post-race

Results

My final time was 9:13:13, putting me at 26th amateur with the 2nd fastest amateur run. Including the pro men I was 60th overall and 10th American. I also beat Jan Frodeno, an Olympic gold medalist, two time Ironman world champion, and former world record holder. He had some sort of major issue on the run and it was amazing to see him push through that while still encouraging the amateurs out on the course.

I felt I put together a pretty solid, and smart, race. There wasn’t much left in the tank, but I also didn’t blow up on any of the legs. The usual story played out: don’t drown getting to T1, take aim on the bike, and fire on the run. I was initially disappointed with my run time, but after learning that I had the 2nd fastest amateur run I was thrilled. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person it was hot for. In any case, being 60th in the world and top 10 American is something that I’m without a doubt proud of.

Photo: Talbot Cox

Success is relative, though. I came up just one minute and forty seconds short of my age group podium, much closer than I thought I was during the end of the run. It’s easy to try to think of all the places I could have shaved that amount of time off over a 9 hour race, but the most important takeaway is to never again assume that I’m out of contention. This is especially critical in endurance sports, where anything can change in an instant (and there are a lot of instants). I’m still incredibly happy with my result and my experience at the race, but happiness and satisfaction are not necessarily the same thing. Had I finished 2 minutes faster, or 5 minutes slower, I would likely be completely satisfied. But having something just out of grasp is incredibly enticing. I accidentally put myself in my Goldilocks Difficulty zone and it has lit a bit of a fire under me.

I planned on this being my one and only trip to Kona. I still definitely plan on next year being my last year of competitive triathlon. I have a lot more goals in ultrarunning, and it’s no secret that that’s where my true passion lies (for reasons beyond just not having to swim). But if I have one year left, I want to be able to look back at that year knowing that I gave it absolutely everything I had and hit my ceiling as an amateur. I need to take some time and reassess my goals for next year, discuss them with my family, and take stock of what I can do.

I was 18 minutes off of the top amateur, and I lost an average of 14 minutes on the swim to the people who finished in front of me. For my entire triathlon career not being a good swimmer has been somewhat of a joke, and something I didn’t really see a practical solution for. In most races that weakness is manageable, but on the world stage, and when I’m hitting diminishing returns in the other two disciplines, it’s something that can’t be ignored. I don’t find my swimming ability funny anymore. I’m dead serious about it, and motivated in the way that only failure and frustration can lead to.

Celebration

One of the co-founders of QxBranch is a former US national team rower. Something he’s said to me is that no matter what, I should take 48 hours to celebrate the achievement of the race and the journey that led to it. Analysis and planning for what I should do better next time can wait. And I actually extended that well beyond 48 hours. I enjoyed the post-race parties with my teammates and celebrated all of their accomplishments as well. I didn’t have the resources on hand for my post-race KrispyBo, but I found some suitable alternatives that could hold me over until returning to the mainland.

Some of my teammates and I at a post-race party with overall female champion Daniela Ryf.
Red velvet cupcake, with a deep fried oreo inside.

Then came the part of the trip I had been looking forward to most for the entire time: Jessi and I took another week and went all over the big island. It was our first (and probably our last for quite a while) post-kids no kids vacation. It was also the first time since grad school that I had really taken an entire week and disconnected from work. It was awesome. 10/10 would recommend and do again. I think the people I work with would also recommend I do it again given how refreshing it was. But anyway, there’s too much from that part of the trip to put here and I’ll try to make a future post for it.

For now, I have one more small triathlon left this year, then it’s on to ultra season! As for next year’s goals, those likely won’t change any of my races I have planned in the next few months, but they may affect my training and how I approach those races.

A note on nutrition

The other big variable in Ironman (in addition to pace) is nutrition. I didn’t see a natural place to discuss this in my race report, but it’s an extremely important topic and one that I often get asked about. With the heat at Kona, nutrition strategies needed to adapt accordingly and focus on maintaining proper levels of hydration.

I managed my water and endurolytes pretty well, and hit most of my targets on calories. During the bike I had a little over 3 scoops of perpeteum, 4 gels, a bar, then another gel around T2, then on the run 2 gels before switching to some liquid calories near the end. The total came to about 1300 calories: around 200 / hr on the bike and 100 / hr on the run. I do wish I had taken one more gel on the run, but with the heat and dehydration it was a fine line. Water is needed to digest fuel, and the slim amount of water my body had left to utilize was fully directed towards more important things, like keeping me from overheating.

My calorie intake for that duration and intensity are fairly low compared to most people, but I’ve worked pretty hard on optimizing my body’s calorie usage and identifying what works best for me. Around 1 g of carbs / minute is all the body can ingest, and excess calories simply add weight and require more water for digestion. Next time in those conditions I’ll likely try to drink a bit more on the bike and see if that can allow me to get a few more calories in on the run, but I don’t plan on ever shooting for the 400 cal / hr on the bike that some people consume.

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