Over the years, Ironman has moved from fringe sport more into the mainstream such that there are presently 39 Ironman-branded races around the world, with a concentration in North America and Europe. The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) owned the ironman brand but was recently bought out by a Chinese company, so we can expect the brand to continue to expand into areas heretofore un-ironmanned. At each of these races there are between 50-75 total qualifying slots allocated to the top competitors in each age group (e.g., men: 35-39) based on the proportion of starters from that age group in the total field. However, each age group is guaranteed a slot if there is a finisher in that age group. Thus, the likelihood of qualifying in the M35-39 age group, in general is 1-2%, whereas this number can get as high as 50% in older age groups where not dying is the main goal.
I first became aware of ironman as a kid, mainly because my dad was a marathoner and one of the top triathletes in the world at the time (Mike Pigg) just happened to live in my small Northern California hometown of Arcata, CA. As a kid, I always thought I would complete a marathon one day, but I never really thought I would get into ironmans. Besides, my main focus as a kid was soccer; I wanted to play professional soccer and even spent a year in the Netherlands during my junior year of high school pursuing my dream. During that year I lived with a few other American boys in an apartment in Den Haag. It was one of the more foundational years of my life as I struggled to cope with being away from everything comfortable. The soccer level was much higher and I struggled at times to stay up with the impressive and skillful Dutch. I was not used to playing year round on frozen fields. However, it gave me perspective, as I realized all the amazing things people (especially my mom) did for me. I learned about hardship, not to take things for granted, and that failure is a part of life.
My senior year of high school I moved back to California but about four hours south of Arcata to Santa Rosa, CA, to play soccer there. I rented a room in a house relatively close to campus and was given a chance to develop a new, more confident identity (when you grow up with a rat tail until 9th grade it’s hard to live that down until you move away). I had a decent season and eventually was recruited and attended Chico State to play soccer. There, I had a relatively lackluster career at a D-2 school. In fact, I was cut my senior year, which was emotionally devastating. My analytic mind led to too much worrying, I think, resulting in bouts of confidence issues. By the end of college I was mostly over it, although I continued to play in adult leagues for another seven years. However, I figured my athletic career was basically over, and so spent the next 10 years or so developing my career in politics and later in academia with the same focus I had brought to my earlier athletic pursuits. During graduate school I routinely stayed in the office until 3am writing programming code and crunching data, often drinking upwards of 5 quad-Americanos a day to stay awake. Coming from a state school competing with colleagues from more elite educational backgrounds, I had a massive chip on my shoulder/inferiority complex and knew that my one advantage was my willingness to kill myself to get ahead.
I relay all this because it helps explain why someone of my background is drawn to ironman competition. Our previous experiences (both highs and lows) push us towards this ostensibly irrational endeavor. For those who get good at this, usually there is a massive driving force that governs our life. Being average or ok is not acceptable. If I am going to do something, I am going to commit to it, and I am going to do it as well as I can. We also love the feeling of conquer, the sense of battle, and the massive adrenaline rush one gets from facing the unknown. Many of us are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in our chosen path. There is something so base and simple about it that basically cuts through all the bullshit and walls we throw up just to live in modern society with all its regulations, institutions, and unfair power relations. To me, ironman is about overcoming obstacles, and it is about perseverance. It is about doing, and not talking. It is about honesty, truth, and authenticity, not fakeness and imitation. However, it is also about humility. I may be good at triathlon, but I am far from great. I may be fast but on any given day a course will break you forcing you to walk. The addiction of it is trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together just right.
The main difference between Kona and all other ironmans is the quality of the competition and the race’s unpredictability. Will it be windy, humid, hot, sun exposure, rainy, wavy, calm? Maybe a mix, maybe more one than the other. Who knows? Will the swim be aggressive and physical? Yes. Will other bikers challenge your prowess? Yes. Will you be able to drop people on the run? Probably not unless you weigh 135 lbs. Will you be humbled? Yes.
This was the first legitimate mass start I had done. By legitimate I mean that I have done other mass starts but it was only a couple hundred people of varying athletic ability. I was surrounded by guys just like me – competitive people not willing to give an inch. Never have I raced a full 2.4 miles in a pack the entire way. I drafted where I could, and did my best to reduce the number of elbows to the head (I managed an n of 4). I also clocked a few guys myself (accidentally). Probably the best moment occurred while I was sighting and noticed a guy’s arm coming straight for my dome piece. Instinctively I reached out with my left arm, grabbed his wrist and threw it away. In any event, it was quite the enjoyable experience. The one thing I learned was the need to hold one’s line when getting onto someone’s feet. Other people will try to steal your ride and it’s important to stay strong and not give-way. In the past I’d move over and just go find another pair; likely I will be more aggressive in the future and work to steal others’ feet.
There were a lot of other people around so the pace was fast from the beginning. The course does a little loop in town and then a four-five mile out and back before heading up onto the Queen-K highway where the bulk of the ride takes place. The course takes riders up to the small but cute town of Hawi at the northern end of the island, then turns around and traces most of its steps back to Kona. It is a fantastic course with a bit over 4K feet of elevation gain, lots of sun and heat in the lava fields, and a hefty dose of wind (although this year the wind was not ridiculous).
People were really jetting up the small initial climb so I just tried to stay within reason and not draft. I didn’t really worry too much during those first few miles as many people passed me. I focused on getting in some calories/drinks/other nutrition to prepare me for a long and hot day. The sun was already out and Mauna Loa (or Kea?) could be seen, which is a bad sign. Pushing up onto the Queen-K I got into my groove. My plan was to hold between 220-240 watts as consistently as I could. During the climb up to Hawi I planned to increase my effort levels but nothing much beyond 280 watts (my average watt up the 19 mile segment was 250).
Initially, I had planned to kind of hang out on the bike train (legally), but that was difficult to do because there were people going at slower paces than my heart desired. At the same time passing people is challenging because you often have to jack the effort level up quite a bit to get by another stubborn rider who may not take kindly to being passed. Motorcycles with officials were all over the course looking for drafting violations, so anytime I went to pass I looked over my shoulder to check for race officials. At one point I saw them just as I was starting to pass but was also thinking twice about it; however, I realized at that point I had moved into the draft zone so technically had less than 20 seconds to make the pass. But the pass included about 12 bikes; thus I was forced to attack for about two minutes jacking my power above 300 watts just to stay legal. In ironman racing, most (decent) people can handle 2-4 of these efforts throughout the day (called burning matches), so I was extra careful to recover after that (I had prepared for this in my training). Thus, a cat and mouse game developed all the way through Hawi (the turn-around).
Leading up to Hawi a group of about 4-6 guys rotated places as we passed many people up the long but not steep ascent. It was during this time I saw Darren, the guy I was staying with. He was holding back a bit, smartly saving himself for the latter part of the course. The three miles before Hawi were the hardest part of the bike, as not only were we climbing but we also faced a stiff headwind. Then a localized rainstorm developed, which cooled things temporarily but presented vision challenges. Luckily I had gone on a ride of death in September with a few Riverside friends where we faced thunder, lightening, monsoon rain, heat, wind, fire, and dust, all within 30 minutes, so the little rainstorm in Hawi wasn’t so bad.
The Hawi descent was the best part of the day. While there was a cross/tailwind, the speeds were upwards of 35 mph for a good 10 miles. Maintaining my watts above 200, I began to pass grips of bikers who were either soft-pedaling or coasting. My sense was many had really juiced it on the way up to Hawi and were now recovering, which is not disciplined but rather ego-driven riding. Coming out of the descent, the temperatures began to creep up once again as we approached the lava fields. I began dumping bottles of water on my bag and neck at each aid station to cool my core temperature. While it was exceedingly hot, my body managed the heat relatively well as I had definitely trained in hotter conditions over the summer and into the fall. I was steadily moving up in the field and as we approached the Queen-K I saw a couple guys I had raced in the past. A few of us chatted and then it was back to business. I know I’m having a good day when it’s mile 70 and I’m stilling slightly peppy and cracking jokes when talking to someone.
The ride back to Kona was the most crucial part of the day up to that point. At any ironman, I would say about 80% of the competitors tend to fall off during this time. This is usually due to poor pacing and the temptation to push too hard the first half of the bike. Thus, if you ride within yourself, you can make massive jumps in the field during this time. A creeping headwind emerged on the Queen-K, so tactical riding now became paramount. You have to have enough power to quickly close the gaps between you and the bikes in front of you otherwise you will drift back, begin to get passed, and start feeling sorry for yourself. While you must maintain four-five bike length distance between you and the next bike, there is nevertheless a minor benefit from riding behind someone. I was keeping my watts in the 220-230 range for the most part, and played cat and mouse with a few other riders all the way to KOA, at which point a few guys dropped off. I continued to pass people all the way into T-2, just like I had done at Texas. My acceptable goal time was 4:55-5:10, and I wound up with a time of 5:02. Thus, coming into T-2 I was feeling as good as one might hope having just finished 112 mile bike ride wondering how the hell you’re going to run a marathon.
In terms of nutrition, I took about seven Hammer gels, a salt pill every 30 minutes or so, and had two bottles of 4-6 scoop Perpetuem (one at special needs). I began with a bottle of Heed, then replaced that with Gatorade and water as needed. Gatorade Endurance is a bit sharp so I like to dilute it with water. Beginning at Hawi, I also would grab a bottle of coke every aid station and drink 2/3rds of it then toss the bottle (hopefully it was recycled).
I knew the run would be hot, as the temperatures were now in the high 80s or low 90s with zero cloud cover and little shade. The run begins with a five mile out and back on Ali’i Drive. Although the route basically goes along Kailua-Kona Bay, there is almost no breeze. It really does feel like you are running in a sauna, and it is absolutely miserable. I unzipped my onesy to get some ice in it and that thing basically unzipped the whole way down exposing way too much man-cleavage, but at that point, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the jokes that would come later.
Heading up the Palani climb most people were walking. I took this as my opportunity to ditch the guy in orange but around the same time a steady guy in a homeless beard showed up. Here I am going from Orangeman to homeless beard guy, I really couldn’t catch a break. It’s hard to take a homeless beard look seriously in an ironman because it is totally not aerodynamic on the bike. The way it developed was at each aid station I would dunk my hat in ice water, put ice in it along with a sponge, and also dunk my buff/neckerchief in the ice water. I then grabbed and consumed every liquid item, save Red Bull, and hoped my iron stomach would handle it. It is an understatement to say that I was not willing to put all the ice in heaven down my top. This water dunking and ice would cool my core temperature, but I probably suffered at least a 20 second penalty at each station. Next time I might just use water but it was just so satisfying to dunk my clothes-items in the ice water and gaze into it longingly if but momentarily. Thank you ice water buckets. The homeless guy would then be about 20 seconds ahead of me and by the next aid station I would have passed him. This developed for a few miles but eventually he faded back.
Through half-way my watch was reading probably close to a 7:40 pace, but as I made my way into the energy lab at mile ~17 I truly was not feeling well and my pace continued to slowly slide. Fortunately an ocean breeze hit us and around this time cloud cover finally emerged. Thank you Baby Jesus. A few smart-looking guys passed me during this time but there was not a whole lot I could do about it. Finally, at the bottom of the Energy Lab we hit special needs and I collected my well-deserved goods – two bottles of Perpetuem and two Hammer gels in the form of a water belt. Thus, for the first time in an ironman, I ran the last eight miles with a water belt. I sipped off the Perpetuem every few minutes. Coming out of the energy lab I knew I had about 6.5 miles to go. The temperatures were still hot but not devastating like they had been. Still, I continued to dump ice and water every which way. At one point during my neckerchief dunking routine, I saw a piece of ice the size of two fists and stuck it into my side. That was a genius move as it stayed there a while keeping me “cool.” While I was feeling really horrible I figured I wasn’t the only one and that I had to do myself justice by continuing to soldier on. I was passing people all the way to the end, but would also occasionally get passed. I really detested everyone who passed me, especially the guy who went steam-rolling by as if it was a 5K. Seriously, no joke. Perhaps the highlight, though, was the guy who pulled over at mile 17, and, as he pulled his pants down to take a shit, said, "Sorry guys." Moments of levity like that help pass the time and I cannot thank that man enough. On balance, though, I did much more passing than getting passed and that kept my attitude positive. At no point did I have a really negative outlook about the affair, I just kept putting one foot in front of the next telling myself just make it to mile 25.
Finally, mile 25 came along at the top of Palani Drive and there were some fans out there. I gave several a high five as I knew I had less than 1.5 miles to go, more than half of which was downhill. Heading down Palani I leaned forward and let gravity do its work. I train on a lot of hills, so am pretty good at going down them. I must have passed about five guys going down the hill, which always feels good. The last stretch I picked up the pace and passed one more guy. It always feels good to pass someone at the end because you know damn well there is nothing they can do about it. As I rounded the corner onto Ali’i a massive feeling of euphoria came upon me. Finally, I had done it, and was close to not having to run anymore. The fan support was awesome, and elation came over me as I came down the finisher's shoot. My family saw me and yelled my name. I managed to turn my head and see them. Crossing the line I stopped my watch and realized I had just beaten 3:30, which I had worried I wasn’t going to do. My main goal was to beat Sarah’s Boston-qualifying marathon PR she got in Vancouver last May in perfect running conditions. I managed that by only one minute, which is a bit embarrassing, but a win is a win!