2018 Kona Ironman World Championship

Kona was again an awesome experience overall: a great week before the race with Team EMJ, and a better week afterwards with Jessi. For the race itself, though, I’m honestly not 100% sure where to start. I made no secret that my goal was to return and make it on to the podium after falling just short in 2017, and that a year of training was focused on that. I managed a sub 9 hour finish, a time at Kona that I can be proud of by any measure, but I fell well short of the podium. I am incredibly fortunate to have even been able to pursue that goal, and oftentimes the pursuit of a goal can be more valuable and enjoyable than its achievement.

So I’ve had a lot of shifting and at times conflicting emotions since the race, and I’m not even sure that how I feel now is how I’ll feel next week. I don’t even know where this post is going to go exactly. I’m just going to transcribe my thoughts as best I can as they come to me. Some of those thoughts I’m going to compartmentalize into separate posts, though, as I want this post to be about my race itself rather than about larger issues within triathlon (Ironman specifically).

It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.

I’ll start with the part that there’s no doubt about: having my wife with me, both before and after the race, was incredible. She has gone to unbelievable lengths to not only give time to support my passion for endurance sports, but to try to truly understand it. As someone who has never had any form of athletic ambitions herself, I imagine that’s quite like me trying to comprehend high fashion, or why people care about royal weddings / babies. Or why tomatoes come on so many things by default without being a listed ingredient. Or how Taylor Swift was ever considered country music. Ok I’ll stop before this gets out of hand.

But, I mean, she did get a vacation to Hawaii out of it all. 😉

Back on a serious note, having teammates in Kona that continue to inspire me and that can relate directly to that passion and to my goals and outcomes has been a great additional layer to that support system, with the companies that support our ability to pursue those goals sitting as a critical layer on top. And the somewhat unexpected final layer for me was the massive support I received through social media, much of it from people I’ve never even met. I’ve honestly viewed social media primarily as just an output the past couple of years in hopes that others could draw from my experiences, and I’ve always had a fairly big love-hate relationship with it, but it really meant a lot and was an extra source of motivation to see all the people rooting for me. So if you’re actually reading this, that probably means you. Thank you.

These guys. I can’t really saying anything I haven’t before about how great it is to be on a team with such humble and supportive, yet incredibly talented guys. They are truly some of the best people in the sport.
I mean, some of the team members who weren’t racing had posters made of those of us who were. How awesome is that? Photo within the photo: Talbot Cox
Seriously, this is a lot better than a wooden sword (50 rupees to anyone who gets the reference).

And it all comes down to this

After a year of training focused on a return to Kona, a week of build-up and acclimation with my teammates, and the earliest race preparations I’ve ever done (I had everything sorted out and ready to go 3 days early!), it was finally race day. Remembering the long lines to get body markings and into transition last year, we got an early start and I was one of the first ones to my bike. I was greeted by a flat front tire. Great… off to a stellar start. I suspected this might happen, as the air was inexplicably low at bike check the day before, but I had been holding out hope I wouldn’t have to ride on a freshly changed tube. At least I didn’t have to change the tire too, like at 2016 Ironman Maryland. And I’ve learned many times over now to not let the things I can’t control distract my focus from the things I can. I switched out the tube, checked things as carefully as I could, and finished getting myself ready to head out to the open water starting line.

All ready to go! I hope.

Swim

I was actually feeling pretty confident about the swim. Not confident that I would have a “good” swim (relative to the top competitors), but confident that I would shave significant time off my 2017 performance. I was aiming for an improvement of 5+ minutes, somewhere around the 1:01 – 1:02 range. I had turned in a 1:03 at 2018 Ironman Mont-Tremblant, which included losing a couple of minutes to a “detour” in the fog.

Alright, the sooner I get in the water, the sooner I can get out of the water.

Of course Mont-Tremblant also didn’t involve what I still believe to be one of the dumbest ideas in sports: the mass open water start with somewhere around 2,500 people. Some people seem to love it, and think it’s this grand, incredible thing. My personal preference would be to do something that doesn’t involve treading water at the starting line for 10 minutes while constantly getting kicked and elbowed, followed by a solid 1000 meters of getting thrashed about in a washing machine of bodies swimming over top of each other, while constantly getting kicked and elbowed and pulled underwater. But I digress.

It looks so calm and picturesque from afar.

Once things spaced out a bit and I was able to do something that actually resembled swimming, I settled into a pretty nice rhythm and fell into a group that was moving at what felt like a good pace. I had set my watch to vibrate at the time interval that I hoped to be hitting each buoy at, and I seemed to be right on pace. I felt strong, and consistent, and was confident I would be coming in in that 1:01 – 1:02 range.

We neared the completion of the single out-and-back course, swimming over the top of the underwater camera divers and the swim caps that had been knocked off earlier in the fray and now lay as neon blue dots strewn on the ocean floor. I surged to use up anything left in the swim tank, and increased my kicking a bit to loosen up my legs for T1 and the bike. I climbed up the steps and out of the water, looking excitedly down at my watch. 1:05?! Really? Again? Every single time I think I’m swimming faster than I am. Based on my watch I was pretty confident this time, but I guess I got out of sync swimming through the maelstrom at the start. All of that miserable swim training over the past year, to gain a measly two minutes. But, that two minutes would have put me on the podium in 2017. Strava link

Fortunately I did at least swim a bit faster than my GPS indicated.

I’m going to have to take a slight diversion here to note one incredible thing about the swim and give a 100% unsolicited shout-out. Last year my armpits got absolutely wrecked by the saltwater. It took weeks to heal. In the course of running ultras I’ve ended up with quite the stockpile of Squirrel’s Nut Butter. I’ve never had a use for the stuff. I don’t have a chafing problem during ultras (thanks XOSKIN). But I had some of it in my race bag nonetheless, and before the race I thought, “why not?” and slathered a good amount of it under my arms. When I came out of the water: no chafing! So at least I had that going for me.

Bike

I wasn’t exactly where I planned on being, but I could more than correct for it with a strong bike. I took off out of T1 focused and determined with my legs feeling good. I didn’t even have any butt daggers (glad I got to see Terrel Hale race week)!

There were the normal crowds coming out of transition and on the out-and-back on Kuakini Highway, but once we climbed to the Queen K I assumed people would space out and the race would begin.

The out-and-back on Kuakini Highway is basically a warm-up / parade through the crowds before getting out to the Queen K where the race really begins. Photo: Ash Davis

I guess I should have specified what type of race I was thinking, though. See, I thought that I had signed up for a triathlon. What I found myself in was a gran fondo. I’ve dealt with drafting before and it’s not an uncommon problem, but my personal encounters have been with small groups (like the paceline I encountered at 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship – Chattanooga). This was something entirely different. Maybe not as bad as the horrors I had heard about from Ironman Texas, and apparently it’s not the first time it’s been a problem at Kona, but it was by far the worst I’ve ever personally experienced.

Further discussion on drafting (and how I really feel about it) is in a separate post, but I know a lot of non-cyclists will read this so I want to emphasize how much drafting helps at those speeds on a bike. It is unbelievable how much of a benefit it is until you experience it, leading to not only much faster times on the bike but also faster times on the run due to having fresher legs.

All I could do during the race itself was try to stay out of it. And it wasn’t easy. I found myself constantly surging to get around the packs and avoid falling into them. As anyone who has ever done an interval workout knows, the constant acceleration and spikes in effort are extremely draining.

But I was still feeling strong, and on the climb to Hawi was finally able to break myself free from the worst of the packs and settle into a more consistent effort. I also got to see the leaders near the turn around and calculated that I was about 18 minutes back from the front – a gap that I felt was entirely closable with the run and half the bike remaining.

As I started the final 32 mile stretch back on the Queen K, I was really starting to feel confident. I was still putting out significantly more power than in 2017 and was on pace to beat my time on the bike by around 20 minutes. The conditions were better than the year before, with the dreaded Hawi winds all but non-existent, but that alone could not account for that big of an improvement.

I was strong and consistent over the last stretch, coming in at 4:35 for a 23 minute improvement (Strava: 2018, 2017). My power was 7% higher, but on average I didn’t overdo it. I actually had lower power than Mont-Tremblant (Strava); it was just produced with many more spikes in effort as I tried to escape draft packs.

I was thrilled, and was already envisioning the podium finish. I thought that if I could hold things together and turn in even a mediocre run then it should be in the bag. I only needed a 3:16 to beat last year’s winning time for my age group. Again, the conditions were slightly better, but I felt confident and took my time in T2 to be sure I didn’t make a stupid mistake.

Run

It wasn’t long on the run before I realized I had a bit more ground to gain than I expected. Then a few miles in near the first turn around I was fully confronted with the situation. There were still a lot of people in front of me, with a pretty sizable gap to the leaders. I still felt confident, though, knowing that if I ran what I was capable of and everyone else ran typical Kona times that I was in good shape. I upped my effort level, though, to the pace I felt was my upper limit rather than the one I felt was safe.

Heading out on Ali’i Drive, still feeling fairly good about things.

I continued on with a consistent effort, but I was not moving up through the field as quickly as I expected. I pushed it just a bit more on the climbs heading out on the Queen K. Coming into the race I felt that I had the fitness to go sub 2:55, a 5+ minute improvement over 2017, but I hadn’t wanted to push the limit too much if a safer pace would achieve my end goal.

I headed down into the Energy Lab towards the turn around. As I approached it, I was confronted with reality: with only about 8 miles to go I was still a solid 10 minutes back from a podium spot, with a lot of people in between. I think I went through all 5 stages of grief in the span of a few minutes:

  1. Denial: No, how could this be possible? I’m still on pace for low 8:50s and not even close?
  2. Anger: Drafters. %@#$#$@ drafters!
  3. Bargaining: What if I maintain a decent pace and hope that 20+ people completely fall apart? That can happen, right? Or maybe the drafters will get post-race penalties added?
  4. Depression: Well, screw it. Ball game. No sense pushing myself these last 8 miles for nothing.
  5. Acceptance: Ok, I’m not going to podium. But what can I still aim for?

Right when I made the turn around, it hit me. Never have I ever had something hit me so suddenly and so hard. I was woozy, and weak, and my steady pace immediately fell off a cliff. Then it happened. I started walking. I have never walked in any sort of triathlon or road race. I don’t even walk through aid stations. But I went through the next aid station dragging my feet, and dipping my head in each of the trash cans of ice water. The volunteers, seeing how rough I looked, heaped towel after towel on me. I think I came out of there with at least half a dozen of them on me.

I was desperately trying to negotiate with myself, my mind trying to reset my goals and come up with reasons that were convincing enough to my body for it continue. After spending a 12 minute mile doing this, I finally latched on to the sub 9 goal. I was never the same after that, but I was able to pick the pace back up to around 7:20, still walking through each aid station and dumping every form of cold liquid on me that I could get my hands on.

Coming down the chute.

As I flew down Palani Rd towards the finish, I knew that I at least had sub 9. I enjoyed my run through the chute, trying to soak it in as much as possible, and came across in 8:58:49. It was 14 seconds slower than my PR two months earlier at Mont-Tremblant. My run was 3:10:59 (Strava), over 10 minutes slower than my 2017 Kona run.

Starting with my disaster at around mile 18, each aid station can be seen as a distinct spike downwards in my pace, typically followed by a small surge and slow decline until the next aid station.

Post-race

Initial reaction

I staggered through the finish area, managing to turn down the suggestion that I go to medical. For the 1st time post-Ironman, I was a free man. Perhaps that means I could have tried harder? Or more likely it just means I knew that they wouldn’t do anything other than have me get fluids and food in, which I would rather do outside of medical with my teammates.

I didn’t know my place at the time, or frankly even care. I was trying my best to enjoy the moment, congratulate my teammates, and not let any disappointment I felt lessen anyone else’s enjoyment of the moment. And I at least now had immediately in front of me the part that I genuinely had been looking forward to the most: a week with Jessi of recovery, relaxation, no work, and no kids.

We started it off right, with a return trip to Holy Donuts and I think the 3rd movie I’ve seen in a theater in the past 6 years. It was Free Solo, which is an incredible documentary featuring fellow La Sportiva athlete Alex Honnold, with awe-inspiring footage that made a big screen worthwhile. Jessi said afterwards that she had never seen someone with a mindset and mannerisms so similar to me, which I wasn’t 100% sure how to take, but there are definitely truths to that. Fortunately what I do doesn’t have death as the consequence of failure, but the movie was still perfect timing to force me to reset a bit and ask myself the tough questions of why I set the goals that I do and strive to push my limits.

Donuts seriously as big as my face. And delicious.

Evaluation

As I mentioned at the outset of this post, I’ve had a number of shifting and conflicting emotions since the race. I’m proud of my performance and how I executed given the circumstances. If I had chosen to sit back more on the bike rather than burning match after match to stay out in front of the packs, maybe I could have had a stronger run and gotten something around 8:50 (still around 10 minutes short of the podium). But I think my rough spot on the run also had an enormous psychological component to it, from the realization that my goal was out of reach. During my Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR) Unsupported FKT I experienced a similar phenomenom of my body shutting down once I realized a goal was out of reach and then re-starting once I was able to mentally establish a new target.

The other thing working against me was the fast conditions themselves. Relative to other people, I do better the worse the conditions are. The more miserable the weather, the more climbing, the more technical the course, etc., the better I do. I’m not fast, I’m stubborn.

So in the week since the race I’ve been proud, disappointed, happy, sad, angry, apathetic, and now finally mostly content. It’s one thing for me to talk about failing with purpose and to try to motivate others to aim for goals where they might fall short, but let’s be honest, it still sucks when it happens. For me, I’ve had a solid string of successes and haven’t had a true, major failure since the 2016 Barkley Marathons. And yeah, I’d forgotten a bit what the sting feels like.

At first, I tried to somehow convince myself that I would have achieved the goal if not for the drafting. But I don’t know that. There were definitely some incredible performances out there, a stronger field than last year, and people in front of me who were just as upset about the conditions on the bike course. Even in a 100% clean race, the reality is that there were probably 5 people in front of me who still would have beaten me, such as my teammates Clay Emge and Matt Mallone. I personally know they did things the right way and still finished top 5 in the age group.

I’m incredibly proud and fortunate to have been on a team with great athletes who race with integrity. Most triathletes do have incredible integrity and I have a lot of admiration for them, but obviously there are some who have a different mindset.

So I don’t know. And that’s what disappoints me most. Not missing out on a salad bowl (podium awards at Kona are koa bowls), but being robbed of the chance to know. The motivation for going back to Kona was to eliminate any questions from my mind of “what if.” Now, those questions will linger.

But there are too many forks in the road for us to ever be able to answer all our what ifs or to spend time wondering about roads not traveled. It’s important to remember how incredible it is to even come to some of those forks in the first place – to have the opportunity and the ability to pursue these experiences and goals. If done correctly the pursuit can even be more enjoyable than the achievement. Being able to enjoy both the pursuit *and* the achievement is even better, and failure obviously is not my preferred outcome, but there were a lot of lessons taken away from this experience that I can build on and grow from. In this case maybe failure will be for the best in the long term.

Action

Those lessons are only actually useful if I can act on them. So after a lot of great discussions with Jessi, here’s where I’ve arrived:

1) I’ll never again put such complete focus on a race for a full year. It causes too much stress, stakes too much on a single outcome, and eliminates the opportunity to pursue other worthwhile opportunities. It’s definitely harder to achieve great goals on shorter timeframes, but I think the sweet spot for me is having two big ones per year with half a dozen or so intermediate goals. Some of the most fun and best outcomes I’ve had were in my compressed winter ultra season last year, where in the span of four months I had one big goal race (2018 TWOT 100), three minor goals (2017 Lookout Mountain 50 MilerAT 4 State Challenge FKT, Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR) Unsupported FKT) and one race that was mainly just for fun (2018 Bandera 100K).

2) I’m never again going to do a race or pursue a goal where I won’t genuinely enjoy the experience. When I do a mountain ultra, the worst case for me is that I fall short of my goal and the “only” thing I get out of it all is an awesome day(s) on beautiful trails with great people. Swimming, having to worry about my day being ruined by people playing by their own rules, spending time on roads (unless a truly unique, spectacular location), etc. don’t really do it for me. If my sole motivation is the goal / competition, then that’s not going to cut it. I’ve said a few times now that the pursuit of a goal can be more enjoyable than its achievement if done correctly. Well, I need to be sure I’m doing it correctly.

3) For every goal that depends on circumstances out of my control (other people, getting a flat tire, etc.), I’m going to be sure there is at least one goal that depends only on me. Competition and random chance are part of what makes sports thrilling and can really push us to great things, but staking everything on them can put at risk what would otherwise be a great outcome and learning experience.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that on the day we left Kona, as I was pondering these things and my future plans, we walked right by this in the front of a shop.

Final reflection

So that’s where I’m at. I’m good now, and in the long term I truly believe I’ll be much better from this experience, but I’d be lying if I said I was happy with the outcome in the short term.

In the end, it’s also just a game. The week after the race was an incredible time with Jessi in Maui: beaches, rainforests, an unbelievably unique hike through Haleakala, and some delicious food to top it off. Sure, we could have definitely done that separately from the race, but if that trip with her was the only outcome of the race then it was worth it. A lot of things are a lot more important than sports and their arbitrary goals, and I would go so far as to argue that the only worthwhile sports goal is one that translates to lessons and improvements outside of sports.

Race Nutrition

My nutrition during Ironmans has been pretty consistent this year. The only thing I did a bit different was to add some more endurolytes due to the heat. Otherwise it was the usual strategy: a bottle of Perpeteum to start the bike, gels and 1/2 bars throughout the bike, and just a couple of gels on the run with some sips / rinses of aid station drinks near the very end. I did also have a stroopwafel coming out of T2. All in all, I put down about 1400 calories, which is actually more per hour than I’ve consumed in other triathlons this year. I don’t believe that my issues at mile 18 of the run were nutrition related. I think it was psychological, heat-related, and from just exhaustion from having too many spikes in my effort levels.

I feel I actually also did pretty well on hydration, something that has been a problem for me in the past. I grabbed a water bottle at every bike aid station, refilled the bottle on my bike, drank as much as I could, and doused my back with the rest. Likewise on the run I grabbed water at every aid station, and the fact that they didn’t force me to go to medical after the race I think is a good sign.

10 thoughts on “2018 Kona Ironman World Championship

  • October 23, 2018 at 3:56 pm
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    Thanks for sharing your race report John! It was insightful, and I can relate to your Ironman vs Ultra’s conundrum. It was great talking with you after IMMT in the tent, hopefully I see you around at an Ultra sometime. Congratulations on a great season! Good luck in whatever races you choose to do in 2019!

    Reply
    • October 23, 2018 at 6:05 pm
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      Thank you, great talking with you as well and good luck with your own future plans!

      Reply
  • October 23, 2018 at 5:14 pm
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    Nice, detailed write-up as usual John! I love your action items and final reflection. I came to ultra trail running from racing bicycles (all disciplines) and the reason I gravitated to ultras is because you mostly just need to run “more”. For sure elites have more structured training but I was getting burned out on the structure required to go fast on a bike. Now I mostly just enjoy my runs and sometimes I try to finish them fast. I do race but truthfully most of the time it’s just to experience a new route/trail/country. And having someone support the run is just a big bonus. If I need a challenge, I mostly try to challenge myself instead of getting wrapped up in chasing someone else or the podium. That usually prevents me from experiencing the post-race letdown if I don’t achieve my goal. But not always. 🙂

    But I am always amazed by how many doughnuts you can eat… 🙂

    Reply
    • October 23, 2018 at 6:09 pm
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      Thanks, glad you enjoyed it and can relate! Ultras definitely do require structured training as well if you want to be competitive (that was a big difference for me between failing at 2016 Barkley and succeeding in 2017), but yes it takes much much less to just get out and enjoy them – training is less time consuming, logistics are simpler, and costs are lower. And the personal challenge is one reason I love FKTs, and have some plans there I’m really excited about.

      And there is the amount of doughnuts I can eat, and then the amount of doughnuts I should eat…

      Reply
  • October 23, 2018 at 7:16 pm
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    Really appreciated your honest report. I think it’s hard sometimes to be content with great outcomes that are still short of our big goals. Great work out there! can’t wait to see what you do next.

    Reply
    • October 23, 2018 at 8:03 pm
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      Thank you very much, and yes that’s exactly how I feel. I recognize that I should be happy and proud of it, but no matter where we are there’s always somewhere to look up at.

      Reply
  • October 24, 2018 at 6:51 pm
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    Thanks for your honest report (and the funny parts of it as well 😉 ).
    When I checked your times on the Ironman webpage after the race I really hoped that the sub 9 will help you to be not as sad (or pi..ed) about the swim and run times and age group place.
    BUT #1:
    I think your bike time had a lot to do with swim training. Maybe you don’t get faster, but you get out of the water with less energy spent and can hit it on the bike.
    #2 You can’t really control who’s in front of you. It’s not Rollerball or Keirin 😉
    #3 A SUB 9 on Hawaii !!! That’s a huge thing to hang high on your “I love me wall”!
    All the best from Germany and good luck and lots of fun with your next goals.
    Dirk

    Reply
    • October 24, 2018 at 11:47 pm
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      Thanks Dirk, and yes I’ve considered that re: the swimming. I’m just not sure, though. My bike power on my standalone training rides increased by amount the same amount this year. But maybe it is better I think that I got more out of the swim training. 🙂 And no, you can’t control who’s in front for the most part (although obviously there is gamesmanship and strategy going on in those situations), but I would expect that someone controls who’s in front of me if they got there by doing something like drafting. If I’m beaten honestly, then a big tip of my hat to them and I’m happy if I know I did the best I could. And yes, in many ways saying sub 9 at Kona is a better achievement because it doesn’t depend on other people. But in any case, onwards! Best of luck to you too and thank you very much for the great feedback!

      Reply
  • November 3, 2018 at 5:42 pm
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    Always a pleasure to read your texts, even in situations that were less than great. Thanks for your time and good luck with those number plates or whatever plans you have lined up next. And enjoy the family time 🙂

    Reply
    • November 3, 2018 at 5:45 pm
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      Thanks very much, and glad you enjoy the reads! It’s always good to have some extra motivation to write them. Good luck with your own adventures!

      Reply

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