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Race Recap: KONA Ironman World Championships

2013 marked “easy” conditions by Kona standards, although easy conditions in Kona still include lava and near triple-digit temperatures.

I was fortunate enough to head to Hawaii early, one week before the race, in order to acclimatize to the weather. Unfortunately the weather was quite temperate and reasonable when I arrived, only to have the humidity creep up and peak over 85% on race day.

Kona is really a special place in the world of triathlon. From the expo giveaways to the pros running by you all week to the media procession at bike check-in, it is really something to behold. Most importantly it a chance to test yourself against the world’s best on triathlon’s biggest stage.

After a very restless night I woke up at 3:45 a.m. on October 12, 15 minutes before my alarm. The pre-race nerves were definitely flowing before this one. After a few PB and Js and a big cup of coffee I was off to body marking and the swim start.

Swim: 1:03:45
Holy hell this was the roughest, most aggressive Ironman swims I have ever been a part of. Sadly the good ol’ days of big bruiser Garen laying down the hurt are behind me, and now I am the one on the other side of the stick. I lined up in the second row, pretty much dead middle. And I was clobbered from the first stroke until hitting the stairs at T1. And I mean clobbered. I had my goggles knocked off and when I went to readjust, I was immediately stampeded by a freight train of athletes. After the turnaround I got hit so hard in the back that it caused my hamstring to lock and cramp. And on the impending slow-down roll-over to shake it out, freight train stampede round 2. To add more injury to injury, on the exit out of the water I whacked my shin really hard on the steps, drawing blood. Whoops. Even now, I still have a sizeable mark.

That said, even with all these setbacks I ended up having a great open water, sans-wet suit swim for me: 9 minutes faster than my split last year. And I didn’t even feel that I did a mildly good job of drafting. I am very happy with my swim improvement, but I know I still have a long way to go before I can show up to a T1 full of bikes and few athletes.

Bike: 4:52:18
It was the bike course where conditions improved dramatically from the year before. I learned the hard way last year that this course rewards patience in the utmost way. Because of the caliber of athlete at this race, the pace starts out extremely fast and just progresses from there. (Warning: triathlon jargon / geekery forthcoming!)

My biggest goal was to not blow too many matches early and stay under 400 watts on all the short but steep climbs in the first 10-mile section before settling in the Queen K. Well, I totally failed the second part of that goal as I looked down at my power meter to see that I had spiked to 660 for my max watts (nearly one horsepower) within the first 9 miles. Whoops! From then on I settled in at my targeted power for the race, 260w (at this pace I am burning a hair under 1000 calories an hour).

The Kona course is more or less a simple 56 mile out-and-back with a low grade 600-foot climb at the turnaround. What makes this course so so challenging is not the terrain but the unrelenting elements in the form of heat and wind. Prior to last year I had heard about the infamous winds, but what came to pass in 2012 truly caught me off guard. Reported 60 mph gusts on the climb to Hawi! The gusts were so strong that they literally blew some of the best riders in the world off their bikes.

Luckily the winds this year were much much tamer, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 mph with gusts in the 20s. Additionally on the way out we had a healthy tailwind, which put some of my bike splits in the 28-30 mph range!

But as we all know: what goes out fast usually comes back slow. And sure enough after the turnaround the head winds slowly started to materialize. But I had stayed within myself on the way out and was able to keep my watts up, actually negative splitting the second half of the course substantially. And this is where I started to make moves on the field. I ended up passing many riders on the way back into town but unfortunately witnessed quite a bit of drafting, which was frustrating to say the least.

I made it back into town feeling good and knowing I had a pretty strong bike split. It was only when I noticed that the time at T2 hadn’t yet reached 6 hours did I realize how good of a day I was having. Soon thoughts of a sub 3-hour marathon and sub 9-hour finish popped into my head…

Run: 3:09:26 — Into the furnace…
And those thoughts were quickly erased in the first half mile of the run…

While the bike conditions were optimal, the run conditions were not. It may have been a bit overcast, but it sure was humid. And the heat in Kona has a way of just surrounding and suffocating you. I was able to hold pace well through the half, coming in right under 1:30. But my pace slowly started to slow along the Queen K.

The back of this marathon course is just unrelenting. By mile 18 I was in a very dark place, but I was still managing to pass people. At mile 24 I still hadn’t walked yet, which was a new record for me in an Ironman (I have never been able to run the entire distance without stopping). However on the final climb before turning into town at mile 25, I had a hamstring cramp of epic proportions that left me unable to walk. DAMN!!! I totally jinxed it! After stretching for a minute or so, I was able to get moving forward again. Sadly the cramps hit two more times before crossing the finish line, which I think dropped me down a place or two in my age group.

All in all I pushed my body harder than I ever have in an IM marathon, but unfortunately I crossed the line where my body cried mercy (I can run through pain, but I can’t run when hamstring doesn’t function). Someday I’ll crack the code on heat-related cramps, but I certainly finished the day with a huge smile on my face. (Note: It wasn’t salt pills, I took plenty of those. Likely close to 65 tablets, equivalent to the recommended dosage of salt for the average adult for 8 days, or consuming 200 shrimp scampi at all-you-can-eat shrimp night at Red Lobster. Basically enough to drive your blood pressure through the roof!)

That Mirinda Carfrae set a new Ironman marathon (and course) record in these conditions is just an unbelievable testament to how good of an athlete she really is.

Overall: 9:11:59 — 13th age group, 94th overall
After 45 minutes in the med tent (I lost 14 lbs of water weight), I was on cloud 9! Outside of the cramps in the last mile and a half (which maybe cost me 3-4 mins) I really couldn’t have asked for a better day. I outswam and biked my expectations. And while I am always shooting for a sub 3-hour marathon, at my size in the hot conditions I was quite pleased with my run split.

Overall I ended up bettering my 2012 time by nearly 55 mins. I know I still have a ton of room for improvement, but I am proud of the gains I made this season.

Thanks to all the people at Finish Line and Tailwind for making my 2013 season a smashing success. My season was marked by success, not injury, and that is a testament to the expertise of the folks at Finish Line. Half of the battle of 25+ hour training weeks is being able to show up to a race uninjured.

Running back-to-back Ironman races is incredibly strenuous physically, but even more so mentally. Now I’m looking forward to a bit of down time in the off-season while pondering some big decisions about what to do next year.

Have specific questions on the race (nutrition, pacing, etc.)? Ask them in the comments! And to everyone who finished the NYC Marathon, congrats!

5 comments

  1. Mary Ann BlaisNovember 6, 2013

    Great report Garen and a great time!!

    Hope to see you in Kona next yr as we plan on returning!
    bmom

  2. Jeff GalvinNovember 7, 2013

    Outstanding effort Garen! I was hoping you’d be hanging around at the NY marathon this past weekend. I should have contacted you. Great race and report either way. Next year should be epic.

  3. GarenNovember 7, 2013

    Thanks Mary Ann!

  4. GarenNovember 7, 2013

    Thanks Jeff!

    Rats — I was out and about during the NYC marathon. Next time…
    I was actually on my bike from Brooklyn up to Harlem and many points in between. It was a great way to watch, as I could constantly leap frog all those I was cheering for. I highly recommend it.

  5. MIndy PfefferMarch 17, 2014

    Hey Garen!!

    Mindy who does Tailwind with you sometimes here… (you probably don’t know my last name)
    Remember I told you I’m writing a one-person play about Ironman training? I just performed it and have 15 pages written. You said you’d like to read it so – I’d be happy to send it if you tell me where. It came out pretty funny. (in a good :-) way.) Hope you are well!!

    Mindy

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