After qualifying in South Africa in April, I had a short rest and then back into training and a good 6 month lead in. It was fantastic to arrive in Kona with the confidence of a healthy and injury free preparation, and my first age group win in Bintan 70.3 only 6 weeks prior. My main goal was top 30 in my age group, which at times I thought was very achievable and at other times I felt might only be just possible if everything went perfectly. Based on prior results, I figured top 30 would require a sub 10 time, so that became my 2nd goal. My 3rd goal was pretty silly really, but I wanted to see the leading pros on the run. Based on the record finish times, I was very confident of seeing the leading female, but to see the leading male run, I would have to be well on track to go sub 10 and be past the 16km mark of the run by just after 2:30pm.
The lead up to race day was sensational. More highlights than I could mention, but carrying the Australian banner in the Parade of Nations had me grinning from ear to ear.
Flag bearer at the parade of nations with Team Aus and Mark Allen. It doesn’t get any better.
I also loved the experience of training on the Big Island – swims at Dig Me beach, riding the Queen K and up to Hawi and running the Energy Lab and along Alii Drive. Swimming with the manta rays was a highlight, although the very short boat trip didn’t agree with my Mum.
Race morning was a beautiful morning – not a cloud in the sky. No cloud cover on Hualālai, apparently is a sign of a hot day.
My race plan was very similar to South Africa IM, with the main differences being:
1. Be at the front of the swim start. My best swims have definitely been when I started at the front. I had a poor swim in Sth Africa, which I believe was largely due to poor start placement, which meant I was very late in the water with the rolling start.
2. Mass start swim meant pushing hard for the first c. 400m to find a good draft.
3. More caffeine throughout – I had practiced with increasing doses of caffeine and found that it helped me.
4. Wearing an aero road helmet (rather than a pointy traditional TT helmet) and riding as much as possible with my head down due to likely windier conditions.
I got through number marking and transition early and was waiting at the steps down to the water about an hour before scheduled start time. I had a great chat with SA legend Kevin Fergusson whose Kona plans changed radically in the couple of weeks before the race, but that’s another story. By the end of the day, Kevin would claim the fastest bike split and 3rd place in his AG, even though he had not ridden his TT bike in almost a year due to his training for his planned race with Sid.
Kevin’s advice was to get in the water early, get to the start line and if possible hold onto a paddle board or just tread water until the start. He also planned to be at the front to try to avoid the swim carnage. So after the male and female pro starts, we were off into the water. I was as the front of the swim start treading water for 25mins – I didn’t do that in training, but even though I normally sink like a stone, it really wasn’t an issue, possibly because the water in Kona is very salty and buoyant.
The start times for the male and female pros were accurate to the second on my Garmin, so I was confident I’d be ready for the starters gun. I started my Garmin a few seconds before the gun was due to go off so I was ready and waited feeling as close as I ever will to a panther ready to pounce. BOOM!!
The swim was definitely very congested, but otherwise pretty uneventful. It went something like this: find feet, hold them for 50-200m, get bumped off them, rinse and repeat. I expected that for the first 400m, but not for the whole 3.8k. in the end I was super happy to stand up and look at my watch showing 1:04.
Out of the water and into T2 in 1:05:02 a 5min PB!! Despite there being lots of people, getting through T1 was smooth and fast (3:06), possibly due to no wetsuits. FYI, I loved swimming in my swimskin and think they are definitely faster in the water.
After downing about 400mL of electrolyte drink in T2, I was onto the bike and feeling great. A short out and back on Kuakini Hwy then back through town, a wave to my amazing support crew and then onto the Queen K. I rode to my planned 145 HR, passing quite a few people on the way to Hawi. There were a couple of small groups of riders blatantly drafting that passed me, including one group into a strong headwind on the climb to Hawi. A few kms up the road, I had a guy sitting right behind me (like cm, not metres) when a TO approached. He took off to overtake me and then protested when he got shown the penalty card he thoroughly deserved. Ha! Apparently in 2016, the TO’s handed out over 200 penalties on the bike course – almost 10% of the field. Despite there being quite a few people who deserved them, that was the only penalty I saw handed out.
Heading out on the bike, my only minor issue was a blister on my right big toe, which I assumed was due to a very wet left bike shoe after it poured rain overnight – my left shoe hung upside down and was dry. After the race I discovered it was not a blister at all, but a decent cut right across my big toe. I am not sure when it happened, but think it was probably when I slipped on the bottom step exiting the water.
All signs were very good in Hawi, with over half the bike leg done, including most of the climbing and a fair bit of it into the wind, I was sitting on >36kph average speed. I starting thinking a sub 5 hour bike split may be possible, especially with the tailwind and descent from Hawi ahead of me.
The descent was fantastic. With many people using the descent to recover, I pushed on and passed quite a few on the road to Kawaihae. My brother Al and cousin Matteo, were there cheering at the T intersection back onto the Queen K, which was brilliant. About 60km to go with a gradual downhill, then I’ll be onto the run. I had not however expected the headwind back into town. For the last 60k back into town there was a constant headwind. It really slowed me down, even though by Kona standards, it probably wasn’t even very strong. Two days later, I drove my family to Hawi and the wind that day was blowing our car around – it was that strong, it would have blown me off my bike.
Anyway, heading back into town, I stuck to my target HR, but could see my average speed dropping. The further we went, the stronger the wind seemed to get. I planned to take two caffeine tabs late in the bike, but with my power numbers dropping slightly, I took one a little earlier to help on the last hour on the bike. Unfortunately, I forgot the 2nd tab later, so I wish I had just had taken them both then.
Off the bike in 5:07:29, with an av. HR 143, av. Speed 35kph, av. Cadence 92, av. power 203W, normalised power 201W, VI 1.034, IF 0.764 and feeling good and happy. T2 was again smooth, with a lot less congestion than T1 and I was in and out in 3:06 smothered in sunscreen.
I felt great early in the run (spoiler alert – it won’t last) but had to stop for a pee at the first drink station. I was well hydrated – excellent.
I could feel myself warming up on the run to the turnaround point at c. 8km on Alii Drive. The crowd on this out and back section along the beach was fantastic. I was drinking at each drink station and holding ice in my hands and keeping my feet dry as I really don’t like wet feet when running. Almost back in town at about the 15km mark a supporter on the side of the road sprayed me with a garden hose despite me asking him not to. Within seconds, my feet were soaked and I could straight away feel the “blister” on my right big toe that had not bothered me since early on the bike.
With hindsight, this little event threw me mentally. I was now wet, so I might as well pour water all over myself at each drink station and before I knew it I started focussing on the next drink station and getting cool, rather than running to plan.
I turned the corner off Alii Drive onto Hualalai Rd and very soon saw motorbikes, TV cameras, etc coming down the road. Yippee – goal 3! I assumed this was the male winner, but didn’t know who it was, but it clearly was not Jan Frodeno as I expected. Not much later was Sebastien Kienle – bridesmaid again. It was only after the race I found out the “winner” I saw was actually 3rd placed David Mcnamee. I felt heartened that I only missed seeing Patrick Lange and Lionel Sanders as they had delivered the 1st and 3rd fastest times in the history of the race.
I decided to walk most of the way up Palani Rd as I was clearly overheating. Half way up Palani and a guy is running beside me at the same pace as my fast walk. I said hello to family there and got a few high fives. My daughter told me I was in about 35th in my age group. As a sign of how I was feeling, despite regularly passing people in that first 16k of the run, it never occurred to me that I would pass any more in the remaining 26km. The best possible result I could achieve was 35th place. If a few pass me, I should still finish in the top 50. Obviously, with hindsight, I was really struggling mentally. Mental strength is my strength, but right there and then I was pessimistic, not optimistic. This is my only disappointment about Kona 2017. It is also a very good motivator to go back again.
Then onto the Queen K – the hot, wide road, with no shade. Not a good spot to be when you are mentally defeated. There is no doubt it was hot – it was the first day since we arrived in Kona 10 days earlier, that there was no cloud cover in the afternoon. It was very hot – even the wind seemed hot. I have never seen so many people walking in an IM.
I set myself a simple goal – run between aid stations and so began about 23km of survival between aid stations. 20m past each aid station I would be straining to see the next aid station. I kept up a reasonable pace of c. 5:00min/km between aid stations but that was nothing like I had envisioned myself running, but it was the best I felt I could do.
In and out of the Energy Lab, then back onto the Queen K. Somehow my mindset changed about 3km from the finish on the last rise before heading back down Palani. I focussed on a group of 3-4 runners about 150m ahead and went back to my modus operandi at this stage of an IM marathon – just catch them. And I did, so I focussed on the next person ahead of me, and I caught him and soon my glass half empty was glass half full again. Not only was I running faster, I was smiling again (at least on the inside). The feeling of running, not just surviving as I had been, was fantastic. I’m not saying the last 3k didn’t hurt, of course they hurt, but they felt much better, I was up to 4:30 pace and faster on the descent down Palani and passed quite a few more people.
If you’ve wondered if it is worth trying to qualify and compete in Kona, stop wondering, as the last couple of km, lined with cheering crowds, the finish chute lined with national flags, and the knowledge of competing on the world stage is unforgettable.
I saw almost all of my support team in the finish chute, smiles all around, high fived my amazing Dad and then saw the clock showing 9:54. The twenty or so times I had crunched the numbers in my head and decided my slow run pace would mean I would miss my sub 10 goal had all been wrong. Unbelievable.
An hour or so later in recovery I found out I finished 24th in my age group and my pained smile got even bigger. I have never been as sore as after the finish, never as despondent as running on the Queen K and that night I said to my darling wife, “I have never done anything that hard and I am never doing that again.”
Let’s just say I’ve changed my mind.
Mal’s Kona 2017: